Blackpool: a forgotten town
Soaring antidepressant usage and falling life expectancy are just a few of the problems facing UK coastal towns like Blackpool. The FT's employment correspondent, Sarah O'Connor, and data visualisation journalist, John Burn-Murdoch, explain.
Produced by Jill Wrenn and Vanessa Kortekaas. Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Still images by Getty.
One of our most read stories, recently, was an FT Weekend magazine piece about the northern English coastal town of Blackpool that's become a bit of a symbol of places that have been left behind by economic change. I am joined by our two journalists who wrote the story, Sarah O'Connor and John Burn-Murdoch. Sarah, you went to Blackpool. What did you see?
So Blackpool is really close to the hearts of lots of people who grew up in the north of England. It was a very booming seaside town for a long time. It kind of rose to prominence with the Industrial Revolution. So people who worked in the mills and the factories of the north would all kind of go to Blackpool for their holidays. And Blackpool really started to fall behind with the rise of kind of cheap airlines. So once people--
--exactly. Yeah, once people could go abroad to Spain or France just as cheaply, people stopped going to Blackpool. So it sort of lost its economic reason for being. Often when that happens to a place, what happens, it depopulates. People leave. It becomes empty. But in Blackpool, that hasn't really happened. It's actually one of the most densely populated places in the country.
That's quite a surprise, isn't it? John, you did a lot of the numbers on this. We can get up one of the charts you made. So tell us some of the details about this fact that it hasn't actually shrunk much.
Sure, yeah. So what we can see here is the bars-- the right, people leaving bars to the left, coming in.
So the blue's leavers. And red are people coming in.
Arrivals, exactly. So first of all, we see skill levels. So people who grow up in Blackpool but want to have a professional job, the high skilled workforce. They're all leaving. As Sarah says, that's not hugely surprising. But what is more surprising is that people who are long-term unemployed are actually gravitating to Blackpool from the rest of the country.
Now what does this say about health at the bottom here? Those are even bigger bars.
Right. This is another really striking thing here. So we're seeing obviously younger more physically able people leaving, which again, not so surprising. But really surprising is that people who are disabled-- they've got long term health problems-- are, again, flocking to this coastal town.
So healthy people leave. Unhealthy people arrive. How does that compare with the rest of the country? I think we have another chart on that.
Life expectancy in the UK has started to stagnate recently. But what we can see, crucially, is that this isn't uniform across the country. And so places from the very healthiest parts of the country, like East Dorset, to the least healthy, like Glasgow, have seen this constant improvement over the last 20 years or so. Whereas Blackpool, after some improvement, it's actually dropped.
Now what is really behind this?
We're looking at increasing mental health problems in these sort of left behind areas.
Top left is the distribution of antidepressants in the country, and Blackpool is a red bar almost at the top. So it's not just physical health. It's mental health. Sarah, I think in the story, you wrote that the local doctors have a sort of unflattering name for this. What is it?
Yeah. So doctors in Blackpool and other places that suffer from these trends have a term. They call it Shit Life Syndrome. And every GP that you meet in the country, if you say that to them, they will know what it means. But they use it to each other, not to the patients. And they said--
But what does it mean?
They don't mean it to be-- it sounds kind of dismissive, doesn't it? Oh, well you've just got Shit Life Syndrome. They don't mean it that way. But basically, what they're saying is people come to them with kind of complex mental and physical health problems that they are pretty sure are caused by the circumstances in which they live. This kind of really messy combination of economic and social and emotional problems that manifest itself in real, genuine health issues.
But GPs are kind of left there in these places to do what they can. And actually, if you're a GP in the UK, you have about 10 minute slots per patient. There's really very little you can do, which is why you see GPs told me, you know we feel a bit bad. People come to you. They're in distress. What do you do? You give them an antidepressant prescription. Because you don't want to leave them with nothing.
But what you really need to do is to break a sort of vicious cycle between economic situation and social isolation, maybe physical and mental health. Is it all gloom or is there any hope that things can be done? What do they do in Blackpool that might work?
Yeah, so one of the points that I really wanted to get across in this piece is that I don't think it is all gloom. And actually, I think there's a risk that sometimes people will say, oh, you know, this is so depressing. It's so awful. There's nothing we can do. And we just become fatalistic. I think that's a real mistake. Because actually, a lot of people live in these places. And there are a lot of people there who are trying to make their lives better. And what they need is a bit of support from national and local government.