Photo: Felix Clay/Eyevine/Redux
By late autumn, only the shop signs along Blackpool’s tired seafront are defiantly cheerful, with their promises of “family amusements” and “happy dayz” of discount rock and cheap cabaret. Every year on 10 November, Blackpool’s nightly illuminations are switched off, marking the end of the holiday season, and around 2,500 people become unemployed overnight. Cheap air travel has been slowly killing the local tourism trade for decades but no one has come up with an alternative to halt the town’s decline.
Two hundred metres inland from the promenade, pebble-dash terraces that were once guest houses and B&Bs have been converted into bedsits renting for around £65 a week and attracting a new kind of visitor. Blackpool has become a town where “you can turn up with a bin bag and £150, and you can get a flat,” says Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council.
We meet in his office in Bay House, a shelter for homeless young people at the end of a street full of run-down bedsits. Here in South Shore, a two-bedroom house is currently on sale for £40,000. Low property prices and fond memories of childhood holidays do attract newcomers, but, says Blackburn, “one of the main reasons someone comes here is because something’s gone wrong in their life”. He describes how he himself turned up in Blackpool well over a decade ago with just a sports bag and £170.
He was lucky. He first found a job working on Blackpool Pleasure Beach and a year later enrolled at the University of Central Lancashire, before eventually training as a social worker. As well as heading up Blackpool Council, he manages the Bay House shelter. “I earn 50k and that makes me a Blackpool millionaire,” he says, as Bentley, his eightweek-old puppy, attacks my shoelaces.
In a report released earlier this year, the Centre for Social Justice described British seaside towns such as Blackpool as “dumping grounds for people facing problems such as unemployment, social exclusion and substance abuse”. Few new arrivals can expect to find a job and the town’s cheap rental market makes it easy for residents to slip between the cracks of public health and child protection programmes.
“When the social worker or school nurse comes, or the health visitor starts being persistent and begins wanting to see your child, you can move a few streets away, with another 150 quid and another bin bag, and get another flat, and then another. We end up chasing people,” Blackburn tells me. He says he wanted to meet at Bay House, rather than in the rather grand town hall, so that I can see at first hand the social problems this is creating. He leads me out of his office to meet some of the hostel’s residents.
“Everyone who comes here, all they see is the prom but as soon as you come one street in, you see this,” says Hayden gesturing vaguely at Bay House’s common room and the deserted street outside. Hayden, who is 18, moved into the shelter a year ago after his father tried to kill him. His parents had moved to Blackpool from Birmingham several years earlier to evade child protection officers who wanted to place him in care.
Hayden’s fiancée, Clare, whom he met at Bay House, also arrived at the shelter after fleeing violence at home. Together, they are trying to rebuild their lives but it’s a permanent struggle. Clare’s benefits have been cut because of a bureaucratic slip-up at her local further education college; they are living off a joint budget of £58 a week while they grapple with the paperwork. Both are enrolled in education and hoping for work but if they accept a job at minimum wage, with limited hours – the best they can wish for – their housing benefit will be cut and they will have to leave Bay House. “You just want to curl up in a ball and cry, because you feel like you’re in a never-ending circle,” Clare says.
Even harder than the daily grind of poverty is the everyday violence. “After 8pm, I don’t even dare walk to the end of the road,” Clare says. A few weeks ago she was held at knifepoint after men broke into her bedroom. On another occasion, a friend came into her room threatening to slit his girlfriend’s throat. “We thought he was just high and taking the mick, but we found out two weeks’ later that he actually did it.” One of the residents of Bay House was murdered at the end of the street last year and, five minutes’ walk away, Clare’s childhood friend Sasha Marsden was stabbed 58 times and set on fire in January 2013 by a local barman, David Minto. Minto had arranged a meeting with Sasha under the false pretence of offering her part-time work. In July he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail.
When I ask Hayden how often he’s felt that his life was at risk, he splutters at the stupidity of the question. “I honestly can’t answer that. You know if you’re someone who’s from a nice home and everything, and you are like, ‘Oh this happened once’ or ‘These two situations’? For me, every single day there’s the potential of me losing my life.”
Rates of violent crime, sexual assault and domestic violence in Blackpool exceed national averages, in part because of the high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the city: Blackpool has the highest number of alcohol-related deaths and the second highest incidence of opiate and crack cocaine use in Britain. Hayden and Clare’s parents were addicted to drugs, which Clare believes is a symptom of the lack of work or hope that affects Blackpool’s most deprived communities. She says her mother’s neighbours “are all involved in drink and drugs. Because they are on benefits and don’t have anything else to do all day.”
Substance abuse and high rates of mental illness – Blackpool has the country’s highest male suicide rate – have in turn contributed to the worst levels of family breakdown in the country. One in 67 children in Blackpool is in care, the highest in England.
Blackpool Council is trying to tackle these urgent welfare needs while also aggressively having to cut its budget. By the next election, its budget will be half what it was in 2009/10. “The one and only advantage of what the government is doing to us, which quite frankly is fucking us over, is that they are not being prescriptive,” Blackburn says. His council is taking advantage of this freedom with a bold change of tack. It is calculating that overhauling Blackpool’s housing stock will have a knock-on effect on individual wellbeing, public health, unemployment and anti-social behaviour – in Blackburn’s words, “You have to drain the swamp within which the problem exists” – and so the council is focusing its limited resources on property.
The five council-run tower blocks in the deprived Queen’s Park estate are being pulled down – two have been demolished this year – and will be replaced by 198 family homes and apartments in low-rise buildings. Across Blackpool, council housing is being repurposed so that one-bed flats are converted to family properties. And, in March 2012, a selective licensing scheme came into effect in the South Shore area. Under the scheme, all landlords in the area have to apply for a licence, which costs £670 per house, flat or bedsit, with additional fees applied to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – usually ex-guest houses converted into five or more bedsits. Licensed landlords all have to agree to certain standards on property management. The scheme is self-financing. Proceeds from licences are used to fund a housing enforcement team and a transience team, who can refer tenants on to social services and public health providers.
Councillor Gillian Campbell is responsible for the selective licensing scheme and often accompanies housing enforcement officers on their visits. “Some of the places we’ve come across have been absolutely awful. You wouldn’t let a rat live in them. It’s been disgusting and quite heartbreaking as well, because some people are used to it, they don’t think they deserve better,” she tells me. Some of the houses she’s visited have had no heating or warm water, or indeed no plumbing or water at all. The team has seen collapsed ceilings, dangerous damp, exposed wiring and people living with dead and decomposing animals.
At one point, after carefully checking whether I’ve eaten, Campbell whips out a photo of a corner bath filled to the rim with urine, faeces and loo roll. She tells me that a week ago she visited a flat where an elderly man had for years been using a cupboard in the hall as a toilet. Although the council is paying for a carer, no carer has been visiting him. However, the landlady does come each week to collect the rent, despite a smell so strong “it hurts your eyes”. Campbell says that when she confronted her, the landlady argued that “it’s up to him how he chooses to live”.
Some landlords are “making their money off human suffering and misery, and we won’t tolerate that any longer”, says Campbell, who at points in our conversation appears close to tears. Having herself struggled with mental health problems as a single mother living in a noisy, dangerous Edinburgh tower block, she says she’s painfully aware of how bad housing can affect people. She’s optimistic, however, that the scheme, which now covers 1,800 properties, is making a difference: “The residents are happy, the businesses are happy, the place feels almost cleaner and a bit brighter.”
But not everyone is convinced by the benefits of selective licensing, not least private landlords. Paul Bander is a board member of the Fylde Coast Landlords Forum, and owns a dozen properties in Blackpool. He says that forcing landlords to pay for licences is “heavy handed” and a “fee-grabbing exercise” for the council (the council insists that all of the money raised is recycled back into the scheme). “The vast majority of landlords are nice, law-abiding citizens; we pay our taxes and we provide a very useful social need because the public sector doesn’t provide enough housing,” he adds. He argues it’s not landlords’ fault when their tenants trash their properties. “The council loves blaming landlords, when the reality is they haven’t invested in Blackpool for the past 10-15 years,” he says. Both parties would agree that the relationship between landlords and the council is strained at best.
At Streetlife, a homeless shelter providing emergency short-term accommodation to young people, its chief executive Jane Hugo also voices concerns about the council. By demolishing one-bedroom flats in high-rises and clamping down on dishevelled bedsits, the council is reducing the amount of housing available to young people. Under-35s receive a lower level of housing benefit, and are more likely to be living on their own, so they cannot afford higher-quality properties. She believes that cracking down on sub-standard rental properties is a good thing, but alternative accommodation for young people forced to rent at the bottom of the market isn’t being found fast enough.
At the same time, an amendment to council rules is creating extra pressures for young people in desperate need of accommodation. Since September, those seeking to access housing services have to prove that they have lived in the city for at least three years. For young people who have spent time sleeping on friends’ sofas, or moving from flat to flat and working cash in hand, providing the necessary evidence can be difficult. And while young people are trying to gather the paperwork they need, Streetlife is not allowed to house them. Unless the council changes its rules, Streetlife will no longer be financially viable: Hugo says her charity needs 75 per cent occupancy to survive but since September they have struggled to fill half the beds each night.
At Streetlife I meet Connor, a 24-year-old who had dropped in to the centre for some subsidised egg on toast. He had been sleeping on a friend’s sofa for the past few nights but a week earlier he’d slept on the pavement just outside the homeless shelter, knowing there were empty beds inside. “I curled up in a ball under a blanket. I even put my head underneath, just to stay warm,” he says.
Connor was placed in care in Blackpool when he was 12, and stayed there until he was 18. Six years ago, he moved in with his girlfriend in Thornton, a few miles from Blackpool. In the past four months, his mother died, his girlfriend suffered a miscarriage and then they split up. He is heartbroken – “She was my soulmate,” he says – but his more immediate concern is whether he’ll have to sleep rough again tonight. When I leave him he’s preparing to call up the council to see if they’ve come to any decision about his case or if he’ll sleep out in the cold. “We support the idea of a local connection, we can’t help everybody, but we would prefer it if people are treated with a little bit more dignity and compassion,” says Hugo, who is now lobbying for the council to change its laws. “The doors are being slammed everywhere young people turn.”
Even if Blackpool is able to regenerate its housing stock and if this leads to improvements in the city’s poor health and high levels of social breakdown, this will take years to make a difference. For young people, hardest hit by Blackpool’s social and economic decline, this is little consolation.
“A lot of this is about hope . . . Kids in here [Bay House], how do you tell them not to smoke, or to get up and go to college?” says Simon Blackburn at one point during our conversation. He says it’s difficult to keep them optimistic about the future when the best they can hope for is “a seasonal job in McDonald’s or on the Pleasure Beach”. It’s also about young people’s horizons; and their sense of belonging to their town when they are socially and economically excluded. Blackburn tells the story of how this summer, some of the women at Bay House had laid out towels in the grit and the oil outside the neighbouring garage to sunbathe. He had to persuade them to walk the few hundred metres to sunbathe on the beach – the possibility hadn’t occurred to them.
Hayden and Clare are teenagers yet they sound resigned to being part of a lost generation; their ambitions are centred on bringing up children with better life chances than they ever had. Once they have completed their movingly modest “five-step plan”, which culminates in buying a flat, Clare wants to become a mother and foster parent, to help children like themselves who “never got any love or attention”.
“I want to give them a good life, where they have clothes and don’t have to worry about when they will be fed, and I want to help them with their homework or if they want to go to university,” she says. And for her, that means one thing. “I want out of Blackpool.”
Sophie McBain is a New Statesman staff writer. Some names have been changed to protect identities.