When Johnny first tried heroin in 1987 aged 15, he had been told the drug was a bit like cannabis. “If someone had said to me then, ‘See that bag of brown powder you’re picking up? Kiss goodbye to the next 30 years of your life’, I would have thought twice.”
The 47-year-old has been off the drug for nine months and says he has never felt so well, but many of his friends have not been so lucky. Over the years he has been to the funerals of 19 people who have died from drug overdoses. “I hung around with 22 lads when I was growing up, and there are three of them left now,” he says.
Johnny’s experience is not unique. His hometown, Blackpool, was one of seven coastal towns to feature in a list this week of 10 local authorities in England and Wales with the highest rates of heroin deaths, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The Lancashire seaside resort tops that list and has recorded the highest rate of deaths involving heroin or morphine of any other council district since 2010. There were 14 heroin misuse deaths per 100,000 people in 2016, compared with the national average of 1.7 in England and 2.3 in Wales. That is almost twice as high as the borough with the next highest rate – Burnley, with 7.6 per 100,000.
Arif Rajpura, Blackpool’s director of public health, says the high death rate was due to a number of factors, most of which were linked to poverty. The town has plenty of very cheap accommodation – often in former tourist guesthouses – which attracts hard-up people from surrounding areas.
“Blackpool imports its ill health,” he says. “People are often running away from something. They’ve got a positive memory of Blackpool from visiting as a child and they see Blackpool as a place to go where they can find cheap housing.”
The situation in the town, Rajpura says, is also part of a national picture in which heroin deaths have more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, from 579 to 1,201. He points to analysis by Public Health England that partly attributed the rising death rate to the increasingly frail “Trainspotting generation” – people who started using the drug in the late 80s and 90s and whose health has been ruined by decades of addiction.
Gordon Marsden, the MP for Blackpool South, says the ability of local authorities such as Blackpool to deal with problems like drug abuse had been seriously hindered by cuts to council budgets. Blackpool council has lost £450m from its budget over the past seven years. “When you look at that in the context of a relatively small unitary authority – with a population of around 150,000 – that is a lot of money,” he says.
Marsden is also keen to point out that the problems the town faces are shared with other coastal areas. Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Hastings, Thanet, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot also appear on the list of heroin death hotspots. “Seaside towns often have far more in common with each other, even if they’re 200 miles apart, than they have with towns that are 20 miles inland,” he says.
It is a view shared by Will Jennings, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Southampton and co-founder of the Centre for Towns, a thinktank that has highlighted the exodus of young people from smaller towns to find work in big cities. The demise of many British seaside towns cannot be viewed as part of the general trend of deindustrialisation that brought economic decline in some of their inland neighbours, he argues.
“This is about a very long-term historical arc over 50 years,” says Jennings. “At a certain point in history, around 100 years ago, they were actually quite affluent leisure destinations.” The rise of foreign travel hit places like Blackpool, he says, and the fact that many seaside towns are poorly connected to big cities means young people have had to move away to find work.
Ian Treasure, the service manager at the charity Blackpool Fulfilling Lives, insists the town is taking innovative steps to tackle its problems. “Every seaside town has this dichotomy of the glitzy promenade and then the problems behind the scenes, but the work that is going on in Blackpool is really making a difference.”
The charity is one of scores of groups in the town working to help its most vulnerable residents. Established in 2014 in partnership with the national charity Addaction using £10m of lottery funding, it works with people who are struggling with mental health issues, drug addiction, and homelessness. Staff and volunteers, many of whom have had experience of drug addiction themselves, work with individuals to navigate the system and access services – accompanying them to appointments and helping them fill out forms.
“Blackpool is serious about trying to reverse the tide on the negative publicity we’ve had because look around today, it’s wonderful,” Treasure says. “It’s sunny, it’s warm, there are people shopping. It’s a lovely place to be.”
He thinks everybody in the town should feel a sense of responsibility to help address its drug problems. “I live in Blackpool and one of the things I find upsetting is when people say, ‘Oh, this town is a tip’, because what are they doing to try and change things? Everybody has a role to play.”
These days Johnny spends his time volunteering at Blackpool Fulfilling Lives, and is learning to drive. “I want to carry on volunteering for a bit and then work and get a job,” he says. “I want to help people turn their lives around, like people have helped me.”
Although he has not always had the best time in Blackpool, he enjoys living there. “I love the atmosphere. I love the people. I loved growing up here. My family are here and I would never leave. I had bad times here, but that was my own doing. It was nothing to do with Blackpool.”