Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Blackpool

I had grown accustomed to thinking that talk of Britain's declining seaside resorts was a product of unjustified pessimism. Go to a Norfolk resort like Hunstanton or an Essex one like Frinton and you'll see no lack of visitors. I've been in Hunstanton a few times way off-season and it still seemed alive, in-season it is packed. Good, less anecdotal, evidence for this is the mushrooming value of beach huts at these resorts.

I would guess that the rising population and affluence of areas within driving distance of these resorts (the rich South of England) has been enough to offset the increasing availability of foreign holidays. There are both more people and most are combining flying to the sun with a trip in the UK. Faced with a choice between Mallorca and Norfolk consumers have chosen both.

Blackpool, which I saw for the first time over the last few days, is rather different. It is a very sad city. There are hundreds of restaurants promising "burgers, kebabs and pizza" but almost none that offer an even moderate quality meal (the Indian restaurant Jali is a superb exception). There are some beautiful buildings left but I'd say roughly 80% of Blackpool's building stock needs almost total renovation or demolition. The famous Illuminations look cheap - like a small and rather tasteless town left their Christmas lights on. There is a strip club on the sea-front. While this might be commercially successful it suggests utter desperation for an area that, if it wants to be really successful, needs to attract families. The Winter Gardens are remarkable but seem like a relic from another age without a cultural scene to sustain them. While I was there the event being advertised at the Opera House, and the most famous name I saw in all the adverts for acts in Blackpool within the next few months, was Roy Chubby Brown.

Next year the conference moves to Birmingham. Birmingham is less pretentious than Manchester but I actually find it far more interesting. It has an energy to its private sector and was, a few years ago when I last spent a lot of time there, going through a construction boom with shiny new hotels and towers all around. The renaissance is still overly concentrated in the city centre but that is a fairly natural place to begin. It felt far more like a second city to me than Manchester ever has. Replacing the faded glamour of Blackpool with the energetic bustle of central Birmingham would be a great symbolic change for the party. It also makes electoral sense given the number of marginal seats around the West Midlands.

I was glad I saw Blackpool. I spend most of my time in either central London or the Home Counties and it is important to see the depth of the challenges other parts of the country face. Still, I'd rather see Birmingham where the Brummies are working to overcome their city's problems than Blackpool that seems lost in hopelessness.

On my last night in Blackpool I was walking from the Winter Gardens to the Jali restaurant next to the Imperial hotel where most nights at the conference ended. An old man stopped me in the street and asked when the conference would be ending. I answered that it would be in the early afternoon the following day. His response, expressed in tones that weren't quite rude, "Don't vote to come here again. Nothing but an inconvenience". He might have been a lonely groucher but I'm not sure. It seems possible to me that Blackpool's residents actually resent a rare injection of money into local businesses in desperate need of custom. Become sufficiently accustomed to failure and rare moments of success can feel like a disruption.

2 comments:

Gracchi said...

That's a really sad picture Matt. I don't know Blackpool that well but I do know that back in the fifties my dad, his mum and dad used to go on holiday there when he was a kid, its got all sorts of associations for me with his childhood. Its sad to hear about its decline- lets hope it recovers.

El Dave. said...

I went to Blackpool for NUS Conference. The Winter Gardens could be a really nice conference venue - quite unlike any of the others - but it needs work doing to it. It looks and feels a bit shabby. Equally, the precinct around it needs work and I don't think there are enough hotels. It needs investment.