FOR centuries, the average lifespan has got longer and longer – until now.
The age we can expect to reach has stalled over the past decade, with life expectancy going down in some less well-off neighbourhoods.
The wealth gap separating the two parts of the country has led to a health gap, with people in the South living even longer while those in the North die younger.
If you want to reach your eighties, the worst place to live in England and Wales is Blackpool.
In the Lancs seaside resort, known for its tower and hosting Strictly Come Dancing, men die at 74.5 on average while women get to 79.5.
A visit quickly reveals why Blackpool’s men are dying five years earlier than the rest of the population.
Locals tell of a town affected by alcohol and drug abuse. It has the highest number of heroin deaths in England and 122 people died from excessive boozing in one year.
Joe Roberts, 30, who is off work with ill-health, told The Sun: “Drugs are bringing the town down. Once it has hold of you, that’s it.
“I used to have a drug problem and was taking a lot of cocaine at one point. It took over my life and got so bad I nearly lost my family. I finally stopped because it was either drugs or them.”
But why are people in the South living so much longer?
‘PEOPLE PULL A FACE WHEN I SAY WHERE I'M FROM’
We visited High Wycombe, in the home counties, a place similar in size to Blackpool but with one of the UK’s HIGHEST life expectancies.
In the Bucks commuter town, a girl born today is likely to live past her 85th birthday, while a boy should reach 82.
Happy locals reckon the Chiltern Hills could have something to do with their long lifespan. Veronica Wallace, 80, said: “Possibly people are living so long because we have to climb the hills. There’s a lot of them about in the area but I love walking.”
Ilyas Mohammed, 70, originally from Pakistan, said: “When I moved to England I loved the greenery of Wycombe.
“It reminded me of home and meant I could take my children out and about.”
Another resident believes diet plays a part in their longevity.
Former local education authority worker Bill Cariven, 67, said: “Where we are, people eat healthier than elsewhere.”
The handsome town centre, with its Georgian redbrick architecture, is clean and tidy — yet the area is not without terrifying crime.
Last year jihadist Nadir Syed was given a life sentence for plotting a Remembrance Day beheading, while 18-year-old neo-Nazi Jacek Tchorzewski was jailed for four years after he was found guilty of possessing terrorist documents.
One person was murdered there in 2018, compared to seven in Blackpool.
The signs of deprivation in the North West seaside resort, which has eight of the ten poorest neighbourhoods in England, are plain to see.
Trapped in a cycle
WHAT lurks behind the dramatic wealth gap and health gap between these two towns?
It is not just the scourge of de-industrialisation and decades of underinvestment and neglect.
Crucially, there are also a number of cultural factors.
A drug and alcohol problem, like the one facing Blackpool, is a symptom of a community not at ease with itself. The relative weakness of community bonds makes poverty more difficult to bear than in places that benefit from the spirit of self-help.
In such circumstances, civic pride is more difficult to sustain and the community is less able to contain antisocial behaviour than in places like High Wycombe, where civic pride prevails. It is not simply austerity but the combination of a community in trouble and poverty that creates a depressing cycle of diminished expectations.
That, in turn, leads to the high levels of health problems in towns such as Blackpool.
But in principle there are no barriers to the North recapturing some of its former glory.
Yes, it has been left behind. But with serious investment and sound Government policies, the spirit of community pride will revive.
- By Frank Furedi, Sociologist
Joe Roberts added: “You just have to walk down the prom and there are druggies everywhere. Blackpool has a lot of people sleeping rough.
“The town needs more help to increase people’s quality of life and life expectancy.”
Yet despite the challenges Blackpool faces, some are optimistic about the town and what it has to offer. Sarah Brown, 35, said: “I moved to Blackpool from Coventry five years ago and it’s the best thing I could have done.
“Blackpool attracts thousands of people who come here each year to get drunk and have a good time.
“Residents might get drawn in to that culture. I have seen it happen but fortunately not to me.”
Once reliant on tourism, the number of visitors has plunged from 17million a year in the Nineties to eight million today.
Folk still visit its zoo, amusement park, three piers, aquarium and Madame Tussauds. But tourism jobs are seasonal, so work is scarce in winter.
Natalie Crisp, 27, a kitchen manufacturer, said: “Money is being invested but it is being spent trying to attract tourists. Nothing is being spent to help those living here.” While the national average for benefits claimants is three per cent, in Blackpool it is 13 per cent.
A report from the Institute of Health Equity this week blamed the slowdown in life expectancy in northern towns on poverty and health inequalities.
Six years ago men could expect to live a year longer in Blackpool than they can now, while in Wycombe a woman’s life expectancy has steadily risen year on year. Blackpool has one of the highest numbers of fast-food outlets in the country and its obesity levels are double that of the Bucks town.
Lydia Shaw, 18, who works at Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, said: “Low life expectancy also has a lot to do with lifestyle and diet.
“When I tell people I’m from Blackpool, they pull a face. But like any other town it has its good and bad areas.”
Regeneration plans are in place — and High Wycombe can show Blackpool what investment and a burst of civic pride can do.
It is now litter-free — a huge improvement on being the fourth-dirtiest town in the South East in 2007 — and the Eden Centre shopping mall opened in 2008 as part of a huge regeneration project.
Amdad Mohammad, a 30-year-old life-drawing artist, said: “We have so many great facilities here.”
Four years ago it was voted the most desirable commuter town for people working in London, just a 30-minute train ride away.
Next up is the renovation of the area close to the railway station, with plans to repair the Grade II-listed Brunel Engine Shed.
Retired builder William Lambert, 70, said: “It’s a very open and a lovely place, which may be why people from here live longer.”
Whatever the reason, this tale of two cities shows just how stark the North-South divide has become.
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