It is 14 years since the Conservatives last held their conference in Blackpool, but the resort has been on the lips of every cabinet member in Manchester this week.
“Children born in Blackpool are no less gifted than those in Beaconsfield but their GCSE results, job prospects and university offers don’t reflect that. That’s wrong,” said Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up.
In his speech, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, pledged to tackle the inequalities that meant healthy life expectancy was 20 years higher in Richmond-on-Thames than in Blackpool.
Boris Johnson could also give the Lancastrian seaside a namecheck in his conference address on Wednesday. What the prime minister probably will not mention as he takes to the podium is that some of Blackpool’s most deprived and sickest people will be £1,000 a year worse off as a direct result of decisions taken by his government.
From Wednesday the £20-a-week universal credit uplift, introduced during the pandemic, will be scrapped, despite sharp rises in the cost of living, including fuel increases that will leave the average prepayment meter customer £153 poorer this winter.
If 57-year-old Johnson lived in Bloomfield, Blackpool’s most deprived ward, he could expect to already have lived 10 years in bad health and to then die in just another 10 years hence.
There are high levels of alcohol and drug abuse in the area and various deprivation-related health problems, which local doctors have privately called SLS (shit life syndrome).
Most of the 18 million people who visit Blackpool each year will spend time in Bloomfield, the location of the Central Pier as well as the town’s football club. The roads nearest the prom are lined with bargain B&Bs offering rooms for as little as £20 a night.
Since July 2020 the area has also served as the base of Blackpool’s Voice, a food bank, free counselling service and charity shop. A hand-written sign says the organisation is there for “homeless, vulnerable, well anyone, needing help”. By the door are crates of bread to be taken, no questions asked, by anyone who cannot afford to buy a loaf.
The organisation is run by Sue Davies, a trained counsellor, who is bracing herself for an influx of new clients when the cut to universal credit kicks in as fuel and food bills rise. The picture, she says, is already bleak.
About 29.2% of Bloomfield households experienced fuel poverty in 2018, almost three times the English average. The child poverty rate is 63.4%, almost four times the English average.
“People are going to have to choose between food and electricity,” Davies said. “To be fair to the government they did always say [the benefit rise] was temporary, but people have got used to it. That £20 made everything that little bit easier.”
Despite only being in operation for 14 months Davies has noticed an increase in desperation. “We have grown men come in here crying when they ask for a food parcel, men who never ever thought they would be in a position where they couldn’t provide for their families,” she said.
On Monday an army veteran came in saying he had been referred by the council. “That made us laugh. We get no funding from the council or the government and yet they are referring people to us,” said Davies. The man was living in a B&B with his family and needed help applying for social housing.
On an industrial estate on the outskirts of town, Blackpool’s food bank is preparing for its busiest winter yet. Only founded in 2012 it recently outgrew its premises and now employs six members of staff who work with 50 volunteers to deliver surplus food to 70 partner organisations – including Blackpool’s Voice, as well as schools and nurseries.
“We’re expecting a real spike in demand this winter because of the universal credit cut,” said Paul France, the food bank’s chief executive. At the end of October, the food bank will roll out the first of 10 mobile pantries to deliver more food to Blackpool’s most deprived communities.
Blackpool has the second highest male suicide rate in England and there were more than 500 hospital admissions for intentional self-harm in 2018/19.
Shaun Smith, 45, is one of many residents struggling with mental health problems and receives the personal independence payment as well as universal credit. He suffers from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. This week he has been sleeping badly, worrying he is going to be evicted.
Like many of the 8,000 people who migrate to Blackpool each year he had hoped for a happier life by the sea but it wasn’t to be. He recently split up with his boyfriend and says he is trying desperately to stay off the drink but “it’s hard in Blackpool with so many bad influences everywhere”. He is taunted by painful memories, including the suicide of his brother several decades ago.
Smith is among 17,000 people in Blackpool receiving universal credit and worries about losing the £20 uplift. He has two dogs to care for and spends a lot on public transport getting to medical appointments.
Conal Land, from Blackpool Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), fears the organisation’s workload will soon go from extremely busy to “astronomical”. He recently rang clients set to lose the UC uplift to gather first-hand testimony about what the money meant to them.
One woman talked of how hard life had been since she lost her partner to Covid-19. “He worked and I always had little part-time jobs, we did OK. Now, I’ve been ill, had to use food banks and find cheap food that’s going out of date,” she said.
“I will struggle to keep up with my debt repayments,” said one man. “The extra £20 per week gave me a chance.”
Land included a selection of testimonies in a letter last week to Blackpool’s MPs. With both of the town’s constituencies now Conservative for the first time since 1945 he hoped a last-minute reprieve might be won.
Tracy Hopkins, chief executive of Blackpool CAB, warned the MPs that the reduced benefit would take £17.6m a year from the local economy. “This is money that local people would spend in shops, cafes and local businesses. Blackpool’s economy cannot afford to take this hit at a time when many local businesses are just beginning to recover from the pandemic.”
Blackpool has already suffered disproportionately from government cuts. The Health Foundation thinktank thinks it will be hit hardest by the universal credit cut, and this week warned that the local authority had had one of the largest reductions in its public health grant, amounting to £43 per person a year.
The government is investing in Blackpool with a Towns Deal, worth £39.5m. That money is to be spent on seven projects, including the conversion of the magistrates and civil court into a tourist attraction, a carbon-neutral university campus for Blackpool & The Fylde College, and a £4.5m modernisation of the Illuminations.
All of which was good and well, said Land. “But it won’t do anything to help all the people already struggling.”