"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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."