Monday, September 26, 2005
Britain's premier holiday resort
I am happy to report that I am now back in the world of broadband, having given up on the 'facilities' at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Some were blaming the contractors hired to install the internet connections, others the party's conference organiser for failing to check whether things worked properly before the conference started.
But given that Blackpool's Winter Gardens is used by various conferences and exhibitions all year round, one wonders why the local council (which owns the complex) has not by now had the wit to install permanent broadband connections or even wi-fi.
At the beginning of the conference, none of the promised internet connections worked - the media, party staff, delegates and exhibitors were all deprived. The problem was not properly sorted out until half way through the conference, and even then the connection was a slow dial-up system.
However, the lack of broadband is the least of Blackpool's worries. Several Liberal Democrat bloggers have commented in the past week about the state of Blackpool, including Adrian Sanders MP ("pools of urine and vomit") and Jonathan Calder.
The Liberal Democrats last held their conference in Blackpool in 1990. Even so, such is the town's reputation that delegate registrations were significantly lower than in previous years. Those party members who did turn up had a good time in an ironic way, sharing a gallows humour about bad hotels. But the Guardian's leader (21 September) "in praise of Blackpool" was not credible.
The more expensive the hotel, the worse the complaints. People paying as little as £16 per night for bed and breakfast could afford to be philosophical about nylon bedsheets and arcane rules. The biggest complaints came from guests paying £130 a night to stay at the Imperial, Blackpool's top hotel, which was used as the party's headquarters hotel.
Everyone had a hotel story. Here's mine. I stayed in a middling place, which was fine apart from the absurd plethora of notices stuck to every surface. I recall from previous visits that Blackpool's hotel owners had a habit of pinning to the walls assorted warning and rules, written in shaky biro. Since my last visit, desk-top publishing software and laminating machines have been democratised, and my hotel's owners had used both with abandon.
You could tell the signs were home-made rather than professionally published, because whoever designed them couldn't resist going overboard with colours, fonts and clip-art. The walls of the hotel reception were plastered with rules covering every possible contingency, including a ban on taking hot take-away food into one's bedroom (an extensive list of foodstuffs was helpfully provided, in case there were any doubt which types of food this rule might cover).
This decorative theme continued into the bedrooms. On the back of my bedroom door, beneath the obligatory fire alarm warnings, was a set of byzantine rules regarding the circumstances in which the bedsheets would be changed more often than normal, and a tariff for changing them in the event of wetting the bed (the highest price being charged for steam cleaning the mattress). At the bottom of this particular list of rules was a ban on feeding pigeons through the bedroom window.
This culture of petty rules suggests that, either most guests of Blackpool's hotels are barely civilised, or the hotel owners' basic assumption is that their guests are stupid and untrustworthy. Or possibly both.
Apart from conference delegates, it would seem that Blackpool's visitors nowadays comprise just two categories of people: the over-70s "mustn't moan, mustn't grumble" generation, who have never known anything else and like having dinner served in their hotels at 5pm prompt (this generation will be gone within ten to fifteen years); and working class 17-23 year-olds, in town for stag nights, hen parties or just the cheap drink (it was noticeable that these young people roamed the town in single-sex groups, never mixed). A phrase someone else thought up, "a Chav Beirut", is perhaps a little extreme but I wish I had thought of it.
What appals middle-class visitors to Blackpool most, however, is the sheer scale of the tawdriness. Blackpool is not the only British seaside resort dying on its arse. And likewise, every inland town in Britain has a shabby district on the fringe of its centre, dominated by kebab joints, games arcades, places that cash cheques and shops selling second-hand washing machines. It's just that the whole of Blackpool is like that - a large town with a resident population of a quarter of a million.
The political problem is that Blackpool has lost its economic raison d'être. It existed to entertain the industrial working classes from the mill towns. Now the mills have gone, and so have most of the working class. As Jonathan Calder put it,
... the British seaside is struggling because the working class has grown more affluent and expects higher standards. Which is a thoroughly good thing.It might be more accurate to say that most working class people have become middle class.
It is commonplace to blame package holidays and cheap flights for the decline of Blackpool and other British seaside resorts. But a more basic reason is that, with a growth in affluence, tastes and expectations have changed. The punters would still have deserted Blackpool even if flights had remained expensive. Large resorts such as Brighton and Bournemouth have adapted and continue to thrive. Blackpool is stuck in a time warp.
The statistics speak for themselves. Blackpool's annual visitor numbers have declined from 16.8 million in 1989 to 11.1 million in 1999, a drop of 5.7 million over ten years, or 0.57 million per year. At that rate, the number of visitors will reach zero by the year 2018. The town's annual average hotel bed occupancy rate has sunk to 22%. It has the second lowest average life expectancy in the country, and the second worst rate of deprivation (one dreads to think which town is top of those two league tables).
Blackpool is now pinning its hopes on becoming host to Britain's first 'super-casino'. But who does it imagine will be attracted? The town lacks what one might term a middle-class infrastructure; the supporting network of more upmarket hotels, bars and restaurants, without which any casino cannot hope to attract affluent high-spenders.
It is hard to know what any government could do in such circumstances, or whether it should even bother. Government investment would be wise if it were pump-priming the development of alternative industries to get the town back on its feet. An endless state subsidy is not the answer.
Blackpool is dying because most people no longer want what it has to offer. Its traditional clientele is rapidly dying off and its youthful booze-fuelled clientele repels every other category of potential visitor. Most of its buildings are Victorian and in desperate need of repair. The cost of refurbishing the town would be enormous - and for what? As with some old mining towns, the only answer may be to demolish it and start afresh.
Is that for visitors or residents?
Posted By: Blackpool Hotels / Accommodation Guide in Blackpool
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