Austerity on the front line: How Blackpool-based charities are fighting years of deprivation

The Conservative government has committed to ending a decade of austerity and vowed to invest in our poorest communities. Liam Kay visits Blackpool, one of the UK's most deprived towns, to ask the local voluntary sector what it will take to turn struggling areas around

Shuttered-up shops, low life expectancy, soaring poverty: Welcome to Blackpool
Shuttered-up shops, low life expectancy, soaring poverty: Welcome to Blackpool

For many, the name Blackpool conjures memories of visits to the famous promenade, the piers, donkey rides, sunbathing, halls of mirrors, the illuminations and rollercoaster rides. But in the shadow of the town’s rust-red Victorian tower lie 14 of the 20 poorest wards in the country. Row after row of former bed-and-breakfasts turned into privately rented houses of multiple occupancy. Shuttered-up shops. Some of the lowest life expectancies in the country: the average man living in Blackpool dies roughly five years before reaching the national average, and women die three and a half years before women in the rest of the country. In two wards – Waterloo and Bloomfield – life expectancy for men is below 70.

Austerity, which has been implemented without relief since 2010 as the government sought to mitigate the catastrophic 2008 financial crash by reducing public expenditure, has wreaked havoc in many of those 14 wards. The council has seen funding cuts of 36 per cent since 2010, equating to about £870m. Other local services have seen significant funding cuts and poverty has soared. Nowhere are these problems more visible than among local charities serving on the front line of these communities, charities that have been forced to fill the spaces traditionally served by these services and support those most in need.

Life on the front line 

Tracy Hopkins, vice-chair of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre CVS and chief executive of the local Citizens Advice, says there has been a "sea of change" in the problems faced by people in the town over the past decade. Ten years ago, the majority of problems Citizens Advice dealt with related to credit card debts for "luxury" items – now, Hopkins says, people are struggling to afford even the basics on which to live.

"There are huge numbers of people in Blackpool who are in debt because they can’t afford to buy food or to heat their homes," she says. "They can’t afford the very basic things we all take for granted. And not having enough money has knock-on effects on lots of other social issues."

The anti-poverty charity the Kensington Foundation, which funds and manages projects to alleviate poverty and distress in Blackpool, established itself as a food bank this year alongside its other projects in response to increasing food poverty in the area. The organisation has witnessed first-hand the damage austerity has wrought and the effect of policies such as the universal credit benefits system on the lives of local people. It recently supported one man who was reliant on food parcels from the charity after universal credit deductions to pay for his accommodation left him with £20 to survive on for the month.

In another example, a universal credit deduction after an advance payment left a man in his 50s with only £50, £22 of which was needed to pay council tax. The charity provided him with food for five months until the advance payment could be fulfilled, and a replacement television after he was forced to sell his own because of his dire financial situation.

Julia Seaton, chief executive of the Kensington Foundation, says the situation is only getting worse. "I can still be moved to tears with the things we have to see," she says. "It is better to see those things and try to do something about it. But we are not at the root of it."

There are huge numbers of people in Blackpool who are in debt because they can’t afford to buy food or to heat their homes. They can’t afford the very basic things we all take for granted

Tracey Hopkins, Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre CVS

Asked who is at fault, she blames politicians, particularly at national level, the universal credit system and the state of much of the private housing in Blackpool, which accounts for most of the accommodation available in the town. "I thought there was a duty of care on a landlord, but I don’t know who is enforcing it," she says. "People are living in damp, squalid conditions. We see it every week. I think it is safe to say that we’ve ceased to be shocked by it."

Rising demand and falling funds 

The challenges faced by the town have undeniably meant more work for local charities, but financial support is limited. A 2019 report from the Young Foundation called Flipping the Coin placed Blackpool in the bottom 10 districts in the UK (306th of 315 districts) and cited it as the most deprived district in the country when judged by indexes of multiple deprivation. 

According to Hopkins of Citizens Advice, this leaves local voluntary services jockeying for access to what little funding remains. "It’s a double-edged sword," she says. "People need our services much more, but there’s less money in the system. And we’re expected to pick up a lot of what statutory services used to deliver."

Zac Hackett, artistic director of the Blackpool-based arts charity TramShed Theatre Company, says the charity used to receive annual funding from the council of between £10,000 and £15,000 before the cuts kicked in. Now it gets nothing.

"Over a period of time, that funding has become less and less, to the point that this year has been one of the most difficult years TramShed has ever had and we are literally struggling to survive," he says. 

"I’ve worked here for almost 13 years now, and this has been one of the most difficult years. It all comes down to funding. If that were to be a little bit easier, the possibilities for TramShed would be endless."

Blackpool has the fifth-highest council funding from central government in the country, at £921.90 per person, and charities spend £346.70 per head of population, according to the Young Foundation, putting it 21st in the country. But in comparison with many London boroughs, the level of charitable funding is paltry.

In Camden, for example, charities spend £921.7 per person, almost three times that afforded to Blackpool. Ryan Boyce, communications manager at the Young Foundation, says that the level of council spending is not a guarantee of increasing wealth in general. "That level of investment from the council is not changing people’s deprivation levels whatsoever; it is enabling people to get by and just about manage," he says. "It takes a lot more than core public spending and investment. There has to be a blended mixture of private investment into a place, as well as communities taking on and owning local assets."

What can be done?

There is regeneration in the works, and hope of a brighter future for Blackpool. Tourism is performing well, with 18 million people visiting the town every year, albeit many as day-trippers. And the town has redevelopment plans in place. About £300m has been invested in the tourism industry since the mid-2000s and further investment of £100m is due to extend Blackpool’s tram system, develop new hotels and create a food market, a "flying theatre",
a museum and a new conference centre. 

The council’s existing five-year redevelopment plan, due to be completed before the end of 2024, has also highlighted work to improve the town’s housing stock, with 250 new affordable homes already built. 

It takes a lot more than core public spending and investment. There has to be a blended mixture of private investment, as well as communities taking on and owning local assets

Ryan Boyce, communications manager, Young Foundation

But given the scale of the problems, the biggest boon for the town would be the end of austerity. As we approach 10 years since the start of the coalition government’s cuts programme – a policy that has survived almost intact – there have been promises by politicians of various stripes to "end austerity". Now, after Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the general election, the government should be free to deliver on his promises and offer additional funding to public services. 

But what might this actually look like in Britain’s most deprived communities, which have borne the brunt of the financial cuts imposed over the past decade? The Conservative manifesto put forward policies to invest in civic infrastructure, such as museums and libraries, provide £150m for community ownership and £500m of former EU funding towards helping disadvantaged people, alongside flagship promises to boost health spending and recruit more police officers. 

For pro-Brexit Blackpool, which elected two Conservative MPs in the recent general election, the answer is not easy. Austerity will not be solved by throwing wads of cash at the town in the hope that the issues driving people to food banks, homeless shelters and soup kitchens simply disappear. 

A more complicated problem is that much of the expertise in communities – in the form of social workers, teachers, nurses and council workers, among others – has been lost and cannot easily and instantly be replaced. Youth centres that have closed cannot be reopened overnight and university courses in such subjects as youth work have ceased to run since 2010, meaning no one is immediately available to make a difference. 

The closure of charities in impoverished communities, especially those focused on quality of life and the infrastructure bodies that help to coordinate them, has also dealt a hefty blow. "We have lost expertise across the board," Hopkins says. "Even if all the money lost was restored tomorrow, it would take three years or more before we got back to the situation we were in in 2010."

Boyce says the Young Foundation’s research showed that community ownership of civic amenities could be a long-term solution to the problems caused by austerity. Blackpool ranks poorly for community strength (240 of 315 districts in a ranking measuring the strength of community ties and community ownership of resources) in the foundation’s research, with the lack of community-owned facilities a notable issue. 

"That shared sense of ownership of local amenities is a lot lower than in other places," he says. "When you look at that in the context of deprivation and austerity, we see that towns such as Blackpool perform less well in that general sense of a community being strong and resilient."

Boyce argues that tackling this has to be coupled with a concerted effort by local leaders to engage with charities. Blackpool is among 101 towns across the country that have been invited to bid for a share of the £3.6bn Towns Fund, and Boyce argues the key point will be ensuring that councils reach out into their communities to understand what is needed and where. "It is important that charities are brought much closer to the conversation about how resources and investment are brought into communities," he says. "Charities and communities need to be involved at the inception of those conversations, not at the last stage."

Jed Sullivan, chair of the local CVS and leader of a community interest company that runs children’s services in Blackpool, says the local charity sector should be seen by the council as an equal partner, not simply awarded "the crumbs off the table". This, he elaborates, means having a more constructive relationship.

"If austerity ended tomorrow, it would not necessarily be about the cheque books coming out, but absolutely about sitting around the table and having a meaningful partnership that was based on mutual respect and understanding," he says. 

Blackpool Council has historically had little to do with the local charity sector, but Lynn Saggerson, chief executive of Volunteer Centre Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde, is hopeful that the relationship with the council is improving. 

"In that period of austerity, I think public services withdrew a little bit," she says. "But I think there is now more of a drive towards working closely with the charity and private sectors. It has just taken a little while for the light bulb to switch on so that people realise there is a resource available and if we work together we can tackle the town’s issues."

Saggerson is looking into creating a volunteering hub in Blackpool to help promote volunteering opportunities to the local people. "If everybody does a little bit, we can do a lot," she says. "I think there is some very strong community spirit in Blackpool."

Tourism is performing well in Blackpool, but the best thing that could happen for the town would be the end of austerity, experts say 

But she accepts that there is only so much volunteering and local charitable work can achieve when the problems the town faces are so systemic. 

Funding is certainly required, and the local council, the hospital, the police force and charities need an influx of money to put right the damage caused by austerity. Some changes can be enforced only by central government: abolishing universal credit, funding the local council and services, and producing reforms to improve housing standards in the private rented sector, to name just three. 

But perhaps the most important issue is to get communities involved in the creation of new services needed to alleviate deprivation. Gillian Oliver, who works with Together Lancashire, a charitable partnership that cooperates with Methodists, Anglicans and other denominations to tackle local poverty in all its forms in Lancashire, argues that the reason many policies – universal credit being an obvious example – have failed to tackle poverty is that they are poorly designed by people with no experience of the issues they are trying to combat. 

"People in these communities are not stupid, feckless or lazy," she says. "They are human beings. We need to hear their voices and actively listen to their experiences. 

"In some parts of the political sector you have the idea that these people are not only electorally dispensable, but also completely irrelevant in terms of making clever decisions about how to change things. Actually, those people are the answer."

She advocates creating a Poverty Truth Commission in Blackpool. Ten years ago, the first Poverty Truth Commission was set up in Scotland, and other versions have popped up across the country in places such as Leeds and Manchester. These commissions bring together people from deprived communities to ensure their voices are at the heart of changes taken locally to address poverty and its causes.

But with a new decade just begun, and a new government with a comfortable majority in place, how do those voluntary services on the front line of the austerity battle feel about the future? "It’s a hopeless way to live," says Dick Cartmell, a canon who has researched the charity sector in Blackpool for Together Lancashire. 

"It is more about who we are as human beings. It goes way beyond the economy: we seem to have lost our heart and our soul as a nation."

It remains to be seen whether change comes from the new majority Conservative government, buoyed by victories in Labour’s so-called "red wall" across the north of England, including in places such as Blackpool. Whatever happens, there is general agreement that what’s needed is more funding, more power extended to a local level to ensure that funding is spent in the right areas and better cooperation to make sure the various redevelopment and investment initiatives are successful.

Saggerson says that, despite the challenges Blackpool faces, there is hope for the future. "Yes, we can tackle various issues as a town," she says. "But investment is needed to help us tackle some of those issues.

"I sense we are moving in the direction that we need to, but I firmly believe we need to do it together."

Hopkins hopes that an end to political inertia at a national level can help move things along locally. "I feel more positive now there is greater certainty around the future direction of the country," she says. "Hopefully, there will be
a move away from the inertia that’s been the theme in parliament since the referendum on the European Union."

Higher levels of investment in Blackpool seem a possibility now that two MPs from the same political party are representing the town, she adds: "Commitments were made by the Conservatives during the election to end austerity and invest in public services that will make a difference to our clients. I’ll be watching to see how this unfolds."


The UK's 10 most deprived districts: Community strength and charitable spend 

The Young Foundation's 2019 multiple deprivation index explores the distribution of public, charitable and philanthropic spending in England, combining fundraising data with the think tank's Community Strength Index across the country's 315 districts. 

Interestingly, districts that suffer very low levels of funding and affluence often report strong and thriving community ties. Highlighted below are the 10 UK districts with the lowest levels of funding and affluence in the country (orange), and the top 10 (green). Explore the think tank's interactive map here

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