Sun, sea, sand and sexual exploitation

Blackpool's reputation as a fun place to live is tarnished by the high number of sex offenders drawn to the town and its murky sub-culture. Now the council and police are working together to improve child safeguarding, writes Camilla Pemberton


Blackpool’s reputation as a fun place to live is tarnished by the high number of sex offenders drawn to the town and its murky sub-culture. Now the council and police are working together to improve child safeguarding, writes Camilla Pemberton

On a beach, in August 1988, Claire* ate an ice cream, built a sandcastle, wrote her name in the sand and fell in love with Blackpool. For the next 10 summers she holidayed between its piers, played in its arcades and danced in its discos. Her infatuation continued into adulthood as she recalled memories of growing up among Ferris wheels and neon lights, on a diet of fish and chips, candy floss and salty sea air.

Walking in mid-winter along Blackpool’s promenade – half-gutted as part of a £220m regeneration project – her childhood nostalgia is gone. “It was a holiday wonderland,” she says. “I always felt happiest and safest here. But everyday life is totally different.”

Now a mother-of-two, Claire was drawn back to Blackpool last year, hoping it would provide a better quality of life for her family. But instead of the laid-back seaside living and job opportunities she expected, the move has left her out of work, soon to be homeless and a “bloody awful mum”. “I’ve got the social on my back constantly,” she says. Drinking cider and chain smoking, she looks exhausted, unwell and far older than her 26 years.

Claire is not alone. David Lund, executive director of Blackpool Council’s children, adult and family services, says families have been moving in numbers to the resort for years. Janet Dobson, who researched the dynamics of family migration in 2004, found Blackpool’s pull was based on “the availability of cheap accommodation, and the actual or supposed availability of employment, together with positive memories and perceptions of the resort as a good place to be”.

But many of these families have multiple and complex needs, which poses a significant challenge to the council’s public services. “Families often move to escape their problems, which includes fleeing social services,” Lund says. “Once we have identified their needs, or the risks posed to children, it’s often too late for preventive work and we have to take the children into care.”

Not surprisingly, this is straining Blackpool’s children’s services in an already difficult financial climate. Official figures reveal a third of children who became looked after in the past year were new arrivals in the town. Over the past year, 30% of high-risk domestic abuse referrals involved families who had lived in Blackpool for fewer than three months.

“We have a unique situation here,” says Lund. “People have romanticised views about Blackpool and think going back will solve their problems.” But Blackpool, he admits, offers little respite. “It has high levels of deprivation and a number of unique factors that can make vulnerable families more vulnerable.”

Transient population

In season, Blackpool buzzes and thrives, but visiting in winter is a different experience. There is an odd calm, as though the town has turned off its lights and gone into hibernation. The Ferris wheels and rides stand idle. The guest houses look empty and uninviting. The north end of the promenade is dark, but for the twinkling lights of the Coral Island arcade, where a lone few shuffle around its slot machines.

Once an ideal destination for low-cost family fun, Blackpool has struggled to maintain its identity. It has plenty of bed and breakfasts, privately rented accommodation and seasonal cash-in-hand work – which results in a transient population – but far less in the way of family homes and permanent employment. Holidaying families have been joined by hen parties, stag groups and drunken day trippers.

This has tarnished the resort’s family-friendly image. Statistics reported in last week’s Grazia magazine reveal Blackpool as the easiest place in the UK to have a one-night-stand. The findings of a report Lund commissioned several years ago into the under-achievement of girls in Blackpool’s schools were worrying. Researchers concluded that the raucous exploits of some hen parties were rubbing off on young girls, even becoming a model for behaviour.

There is also a more disturbing sub-culture alive in the town, exposed after the murder in 2003 of 14-year-old Charlene Downes who vanished after meeting friends in a bar. Her body was never found. Blackpool is home to about 800 sex offenders, proportionately more than anywhere else in the country, according to local police. Det Insp Tony Baxter says they come to prey on children and runaways – who often flee to Blackpool – knowing they can hide in cheap B&Bs, find cash-in-hand work and melt into the crowds during busy periods.

Lund is well aware of the risks posed to children and families, both those indigenous to Blackpool and new arrivals, and his department works hard to mitigate this. At Blackpool police station social workers and police officers work together on two multi-agency teams: Catalyst, which tackles domestic abuse; and Awaken, which was set up after the Downes murder to address sexual abuse and exploitation. Both aim to safeguard children through improved information-sharing and joint-working.

Rapid response

Kath McTavish, one of Catalyst’s group managers, says the approach enables a rapid-response service. From the same nerve centre at the police station, social workers and officers work on incoming cases and co-ordinate a response. Social workers accompany officers on call-outs and conduct risk assessments to identify the needs of children and victims, supporting the latter in making police statements. This has reduced bureaucracy and improved working relationships between frontline services, McTavish says.

Awaken takes a similar multi-agency approach involving social workers, police, health and education. Part of its work is to target “honeypots”, the hubs where offenders and children congregate: arcades; shopping centres; the beach. Awaken has a 98.6% conviction rate.

Long-term, Blackpool’s economic prospects could be transformed by the regeneration project but, for now, Lund’s team is trying to reallocate resources to protect the most vulnerable. It is a constant challenge.

With more families to support during a time of spending cuts, resources are stretched. Paradoxically, the improved ways of working, which have achieved huge success in identifying at-risk groups, come at a cost too. “It is right that we protect these children and families, but the more successful we become, the more cases we identify and the more expensive it is,” Lund says.

Council leader Peter Callow has now begged the government to make Blackpool a special case and protect it from the worst of the cuts. In November, he told the Blackpool Gazette: “We take our duties very seriously especially when it comes to caring for children. But we need extra resources from government if we are to cope.”

* Name has been changed

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