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No fun by the sea

18 October 2013

Men in Blackpool have the lowest life expectancy in England. Is the Church doing anything to help, asks Gavin Drake

Gavin Drake

Nutritional impact: pupils from Baines Endowed C of E primary School, Blackpool, enjoy their free breakfast before lessons start

Nutritional impact: pupils from Baines Endowed C of E primary School, Blackpool, enjoy their free breakfast before lessons start

"THERE's a famous seaside place called Blackpool, that's noted for fresh air and fun" - but behind the glitz and the glamour is a grim circle of despondency caused by alcohol- and drug-dependency, inadequate parenting, poor nutrition, low educational attainment, a transient population, low employment, and extreme poverty.

The town's director of public health, Dr Arif Rajpura, puts the blame for the town's low life-expectancy on issues such as these. Figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics suggest that the national average life-expectancy for men in England is 78.9 years. In Blackpool, it is 73.8 years. Women fare slightly better, with a life expectancy of 81.7 years in Blackpool, compared with a national average of 82.9.

The problems behind the low life expectancy, or "excess mortality", feed off each other, Dr Rajpura says. "It's a circular issue. Where do you cut into that circle? Where do you deal with the problems? Is it the parents who have got the drug and alcohol problems? Do you deal with that, or do you deal with the child who is coming in hungry to school?

"For me, it doesn't matter where you cut into that circle. We've just got to cut into it somewhere, and the more cuts the better; the more chance we have of doing something for those individuals."

He acknowledges that turning the problem around is a "significant challenge", and he is not helped by the five-per-cent annual turnover in the population of Blackpool. The 140,000 to 145,000 residents include about 7500 people who move into the town each year, replacing a similar number who move out.


BLACKPOOL flourished in the late 19th century. It then enjoyed another boom, owing to the annual two-week factory shutdowns in northern towns in the early to mid 20th century. But, today, tourists are mostly day trippers and week- enders, and many B&B owners have responded by turning their pro- perties into bedsits and Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs).

There are currently about 3000 HMOs in Blackpool, many in a poor state of repair. The council is rolling out a selective licensing scheme to tackle dangerous housing conditions and to ensure that landlords manage their properties effectively. This is part of a plan to "change the mix" by attracting more families back to the town, Dr Rajpura says.

"People escaping their problems remember Blackpool fondly from a younger age and decide they want to come back. People arrive with a suitcase and occupy one of these bedsits. That leaves the local authority and the NHS dealing with the issues these individuals have.

"We are a net importer of ill-health. We attract individuals with health and social problems. When we get people back on their feet, and do something for them, they tend to leave and find a leafier suburb of the Fylde coast to live in."


POOR housing exacerbates issues with drugs and alcohol - two of the biggest contributors to the population's low life-expectancy, Dr Rajpura says.

His office is located in Bloomfield, the most deprived ward in the town. Here, he says, there is an off-licence "virtually on every street corner" - that is one for every 250 people, including children and young people. "These off-licences are competing for trade," he says, and that ensures a plentiful supply of cheap booze.

The pubs and nightclubs in the town and along the seafront are working with the statutory agencies to change the way in which they sell and promote alcohol; and the council is consulting on whether to introduce an Early Morning Restriction Order (EMRO), which would force bars to close at 3 a.m. rather than the current 7 a.m.

In 2008, the Blackpool Victoria Hospital appointed two alcohol liaison nurses to work in its A&E department, to identify and refer patients with alcohol problems to community-based treatments services. The approach is paying off, and, in 2011, the hospital doubled the number of specialist nurses to four. As a result, alcohol-related hospital admissions stabilised before falling in 2012-2013, reversing what had been a ten to 15 per cent annual increase.


PLAYING its part in community-based provision is Christ Church with All Saints, in central Blackpool, which hosts five separate Alcoholics Anonymous groups on different days of the week. The independent Blackpool and Fylde Church hosts one of the town's five separate Narcotics Anonymous groups.

But the biggest problem Blackpool faces is poverty, Dr Rajpura says. It is so bad that it has an impact even on the ability of parents to feed their children. As a result, the town has introduced free breakfasts for all children at primary school.

"They get one drink - either fruit juice or milk; they get one bread-based product, it might be a bagel, malt loaf, brioche, or cereal bar; and they get a fruit," the head teacher of Baines Endowed C of E Primary School, Jo Snape, says.

"Before it started, I was concerned that it would eat into my curriculum time. We can't have that; we're all chasing good standards, and we all have OFSTED knocking on the door. But, actually, it hasn't been a problem. What we have noticed is children arriving early rather than dribbling in later. They come in, they are straight to their classrooms, and get their breakfasts; it's cleared away by nine, and they're in the hall by five-past for collective worship."

Not only are the children ready to start on time, but concentration levels are higher, and the children are more active during break times.


DR RAJPURA is unapologetic for taking on a position that some feel should be the responsibility of parents. He is passionate in defence of the scheme: "We are meeting a need which is not being met by the parents. If we're not going to do it, who is? In a developed country like Great Britain, we can't have a situation where our kids come to school hungry.

"Those kids are having two of their three meals in school time. We are almost in control of the nutritional intake of those kids during the week. We could have a major impact down the line. It's not to make a difference in a year or two; this is long-term."

The provision of free meals is not restricted to schools. St Thomas's includes a meal as part of all its weekly groups for children and young people. "Some of the children don't have a square meal in the day," a children-and-youth worker, Barbara Houghton, says. "They can come here, have something to eat, and are in a safe environment."

The reason for the lack of meal provision varies from neglect to a culture of not eating together as a family, she says. But they try not to pry: "If they don't want to tell us their problems, we don't go enquiring. But if they come to us and tell us, we will help where we can."

THE churches are stepping up their efforts to tackle food poverty with a new food bank that was launched recently by the Bishop of Lancaster, the Rt Revd Geoffrey Pearson. In addition to a food bank, the part- nership, which is administered by Methodist Action North West for Churches Together in Blackpool, is working with Blackpool Borough Council to identify the causes of people's food poverty.

"Working with the council, we can address the underlying need. What is it that has got people in that crisis state?" Dawn McAleenan, of Methodist Action, asks.

"We look at the needs of the people coming forward in crisis, and [see] what else the council can do. We're only one piece of that puzzle, but together we work to serve the people of Blackpool."

In the parish of Christ Church with All Saints, the Revd Alan Byrom says that life expectancy for men is even lower than Blackpool's average, at 69 years, and child poverty is high. In response, members of his congregation work with Revoe Community Primary School to mend, clean, and recycle children's clothes and old school uniforms for a 50p charge per transaction.

"It's a question of making sure children have something to wear that isn't an expense to the family," Mr Byrom says. In the future, the church hopes to run a Christians Against Poverty money course, to provide opportunities for parishioners to learn budgeting and money management.

Initiatives such as this are part of what Dr Rajpura sees as the "joined-up approach" to cutting into the circle of issues that affect people's health in Blackpool.

"Public health is defined as the organised efforts of society to improve health," he says. "It doesn't mean the health service; it doesn't mean any single agency. It is the organised efforts of society, and we are all our society.

"It is the statutory agencies, but it is also the community as a whole. Faith groups have an important role in that."

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