Blackpool: Trying its level best

Blackpool’s motto declares “Progress” and there are signs of that all around. Since 2018, more than £350m has been invested in the famous Lancashire seaside town, including £100m of government cash.

It is clear regeneration is taking place; new buildings are coming out of the ground, there is investment in infrastructure and jobs are being created. It has an Enterprise Zone. Blackpool is already on a levelling up mission.

However, if anything highlights the enormity of the national levelling up challenge, it is Blackpool.

In the Bloomfield ward, not far from the famous Golden Mile, 23.7 per cent of people are out of work due to sickness, compared to 6.7 per cent nationally.

Another grim statistic reveals the ‘all-cause’ mortality rate in Bloomfield is 221.5 per 100,000 - more than double the national average.

The area, home to the town’s football club, is one of England’s “left behind” neighbourhoods, highlighted in a stark report by an all-party Parliamentary group and the Northern Health Science Alliance published in January.

It revealed that people in these most deprived neighbourhoods work longer hours than those in the rest of the country but live shorter lives with more years in ill health, costing an estimated £29.8bn a year to the economy in lost productivity.

The collaboration, shared vision and immense sense of civic pride has helped transform Blackpool

Lead author of the report, Dr Luke Munford, lecture in health economics at the University of Manchester, says: “We have long known that the health of people living in these ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods is worse than the national average.

“We have shown here that if we can improve their health, there are considerable economic and social gains to be made, which will not only improve the quality of life of these people but also considerably boost the national economy.”

Inner Blackpool is home to the most intense concentration of deprivation in England, with eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, according to another report.

That document, by the Blackpool Pride of Place Partnership, also uses the word “stark” to describe some of the challenges the town faces.

It says: “Low wages, low employment rates, high levels of benefit claimants, poor health and high exclusion rates from school mean that child poverty is unacceptably prevalent in the town.

“In inner Blackpool, 50 per cent of households live in private rented accommodation, further de-stabilising the permanency of communities.

“Together, this has led to an economic malaise that is further exacerbated by a high proportion of residents with long term debilitating illnesses and some of the poorest mental and physical health outcomes in the country.

“With young people under-performing at GCSE level, aspirations in the town are frequently low.”

It’s a picture which explains why those involved in the levelling up process in the town say it is vital the momentum isn’t lost and why it is time to press down hard on the accelerator.

And it is also why it was no surprise that Boris Johnson chose to make an appearance in Blackpool, alongside levelling up ‘supremo’ Michael Gove, as the government unveiled its Levelling Up White Paper in February.

In a speech last summer, the PM had declared: “It is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutland.”

So, what does Blackpool need to succeed in its levelling up mission? While it has missed out on the first round of levelling up funding, it has received the UK’s biggest Town Deal, which will pump £39.5m into projects (see ‘Magnificent Seven’).

The PM also pledged to support investment in skills and jobs during his visit, which saw him visit the new Winter Gardens conference centre, which has benefitted from government cash.

And he revealed Blackpool will be one of 55 education investment areas under the levelling up programme.

However, the Pride of Place Partnership is calling on the government to do much more to further its mission to level up Blackpool’s economy by £1bn.

Just before the White Paper came out, it released the latest edition of its Blackpool Town Prospectus, aimed at responding to the current and future needs of the community by building on the national agenda.

It describes the prospectus, ‘An Agenda for Action 2030’, as a long-term strategic vision for Blackpool, positioning the area as a “creative, digital, and educational hub” for the North West and beyond.

The partnership, founded in 2017 by Business in the Community, Prince Charles’ Responsible Business Network, brings together private, public, and voluntary sectors. It launched its first prospectus in 2018.

Now it is looking to secure “a long-term strategic partnership” with central government to deliver improved housing, health, education, skills and employment, and digital outcomes, and to ensure “effective and efficient levelling up” for the town and its people.

Christine Hodgson, who chairs the partnership, says the resort has a strong record of delivery. She says: “Thousands of new jobs have already been created, there have been vast improvements in outcomes for young people and the council has made great progress on improving some of the worst housing stock in the town.”

Its key asks now include £100m investment in capital funding to intervene at scale in the “failed housing market” in inner Blackpool which would involve selective clearance, remodelling of existing properties and the creation of green spaces.

It is also calling on the government to capitalise on the international fibre connection that comes ashore in Blackpool, to deliver a “Silicon Sands” vision of a booming digital sector and to diversify the economy to maximise those opportunities.

In education and skills, the group wants to see a successor programme for the Blackpool Opportunity Area until 2030 to maintain improvements in educational performance and inclusion. It says that needs to be supplemented with targeted support for those who are hardest to reach in the community, “making sure there is a place for everyone in the workforce”.

Support is also needed to develop a “Multiversity” in the town that will inspire all young people and act as the hub to develop a truly inclusive Blackpool workforce.

When it comes to health, it says government support is also needed to ensure initiatives and partnership work to tackle the underlying causes of inequality are successful.

The ‘asks’ include an extension of the enterprise zone business rate relief and enhanced capital allowances until 2025 and investment in reopening the five-mile Poulton to Fleetwood rail link, along with the creation of a passing loop on the South Fylde line to double rail frequency for commuters and students.

Baroness Jo Valentine, director of place at Business in the Community, says: “The collaboration, shared vision and immense sense of civic pride has helped transform Blackpool as an area with opportunities, investment and growth.

“The government doesn’t need to look any further to define what levelling up looks like, we have been doing it in Blackpool for years.

“The new and updated prospectus takes our work to the next level, and our key asks of government are crucial to ensuring that we finish the job.”

Andy Charles, Pride of Place lead, Business in the Community, says working closely with Westminster and Whitehall is also crucial to delivering the group’s vision.

To that end he would like to see strong relationships developed with senior civil servants and even a government minister sitting on the partnership board.

He says: “We have a vision, but we can’t do it alone and in isolation. Partnership with government is crucial and we need them to take notice of that.

“My message is: let us be the national blueprint for levelling up, to show the rest of the country how it is done.”