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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Struggling seaside town shows challenges for New U.K. leader

Blackpool Tower illuminated for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations this summer. The most daunting challenges Prime Minister Liz Truss will face will come in towns like Blackpool, England.

By Megan Specia

The famed annual light show still illuminates the sky each night in the seaside town of Blackpool in England’s northwest, having survived the nationwide effort to conserve energy. But beneath the glitter, the evidence of decades of decline are everywhere.

The signs on the small hotels that line long stretches of the coastline have faded, and “vacancy” notices flash in their front windows. Shuttered storefronts dot the roads in the center of town. The doorways of defunct nightclubs are crowded with those sleeping rough.

Liz Truss, who took over as Britain’s prime minister Tuesday, will have no shortage of issues to address in a country facing grave economic crises. On Thursday, Truss is set to announce a plan to limit the sharp rise in energy costs.

But the most daunting challenges will come in towns like Blackpool, already one of the most deprived in England, according to government statistics.

Blackpool South, where the popular Pleasure Beach amusement park stands, long supported the Labour Party but switched to backing the Conservative Party in the 2019 election that brought Boris Johnson to power. It was one of the poorest areas of England to switch parties.

But with costs for nearly everything rising, and worries that energy bills could skyrocket to thousands of pounds a year for the average household, there are already indications of cracks in the Conservative coalition.

“I do not think that having Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak would have made any difference to the economy of Blackpool,” said Ava Makepeace, a resident, referring to Truss’ opponent in the leadership race that ended this week in her victory.

Makepeace, 51, was critical of Conservative policies, and said that Brexit, which Blackpool overwhelmingly favored in a 2016 referendum, had also had a negative effect on the town.

“No one can get decent staff anymore,” she said of the restaurants and hotels that had relied on overseas workers. “And poverty in certain areas of central Blackpool are the worst they have ever been.”

She said it seemed like northern towns like hers had been entirely forgotten.

Once a thriving beachside resort, Blackpool has seen a steady decline in recent decades, as the popularity of destination vacations to more exotic locales took off and a once bustling tourism sector dwindled. In its wake, the town was left with deep social problems. Both men and women there have the lowest life expectancy of any local authority in England, according to the Office for National Statistics.

An erosion of support among northern, working-class towns like Blackpool would be a serious blow to the Tories, who benefited from a shift of loyalties away from Labour in Johnson’s landslide 2019 win. Many had voted in favor of Brexit and were eager to see a government deliver on that 2016 decision. And in struggling areas where industry no longer drives the economy, people were looking for a way to restore and revitalize their towns and cities.

The Conservative Party had garnered support there with plans to deliver on the Brexit vote and the promise of nationwide “leveling up” — a program to bolster living standards and promote economic and social development in less prosperous parts of the country. That pledge, which buoyed the party in the last election, has yet to fully materialize here, locals and policy experts say.

There have been some signs of positive development in recent years. Blackpool was awarded 39.5 million pounds (about $45 million) this year by the government to revamp tourist attractions, address the effects of the pandemic and create a hub for young people seeking jobs. There are efforts underway to improve the quality of education and develop better transportation links.

This year, a newly refurbished 30 million pound conference center opened, hoping to draw new visitors to the town.

The Conservative Party held its spring conference there in March, and Johnson, then prime minister, vowed that the party would “do everything we can to help people with their daily costs, help people with the cost of living.”

The authorities have vowed to maintain one of the town’s signature attractions, the Blackpool Illuminations light show, despite the concerns about surging energy costs. The show, which was switched on over the weekend and will run through the fall and winter, features twinkling lights over the main promenade that stretches for 6 miles along the seafront and dates to the Victorian era.

But Craig Smalley, who was born and raised in Blackpool and has owned a fast food stall there for the past 16 years, and other small business owners worry that the cost of the show could eventually become unsustainable and fear that they could lose another tourism draw.

“It could get to a stage where they have to turn it off early,” Smalley said. “And I really hope that doesn’t happen.”

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