Making the town a World Heritage Site would prevent it from developing as a modern resort, argues Clive Aslet.
Blackpool – the very name evokes a world of saucy postcards, knotted handkerchiefs and gorgon-like landladies. I first went there ages ago, with a group of architectural enthusiasts, bent on admiring the 1930s Pleasure Beach. One of the party – a geography teacher – drove me up, navigating by the stars. We arrived late, to find a friend looking out for us from a bay window. He had been propositioned several times by wags who claimed to think they were in the red light district.
At the time, I thought Blackpool was charming. Apart from the once-glamorous casino (Joseph Emberton, 1939), there was the famous tower: with Star Warsshowing in cinemas, it seemed incredible that people, young and old, would queue for hours to visit the top, just for the unsophisticated joy of watching the fancy trams.
On the first floor, the Tower Ballroom was packed with foxtrotting couples, done up to the nines – until (collective sigh of wonder, admiration and fear) thepaso doble was announced, when the floor emptied of all except two pairs, one of the men visibly counting time, the other an incarnation of Latin flamboyance. Instead of the tattooed and shaven-headed people I had expected to see on the streets, there were families, many of them Asian. I came home thinking that this was a Britain at its best. Don't change a thing.
Now somebody else seems to have had the same idea, and Blackpool has been proposed as a World Heritage site. Crikey. It may be that they really won't change a thing – but that would be a disaster.
You see, in the intervening 30 years or so, I've changed my view. Not long ago, I went back to the town to see the Pepsi Max Big One, then the biggest roller-coaster in the world. It was winter, and I viewed the town with different eyes. Blackpool does indeed have a remarkable legacy, as the great holiday destination of the Lancashire mill towns, and as – in places – an admirably preserved fossil of the Ena Sharples era. But it has a lot of other things too, such as poverty, poor housing, sexual exploitation and personal debt. I still loved it – but I had no intention of holidaying there.
And it's not that I don't like the British seaside: in fact, my family like it so much that we've got a house there. Ramsgate has a different history from Blackpool, but they shared the same decline in the latter half of the 20th century; they also share some of the same social problems, exacerbated by the wicked policy of dumping problem families from London boroughs in cheap seaside accommodation.
But the Pearl of Thanet, as Ramsgate used to be known, is climbing out of the slough. True, heritage has something to do with it: the cliffs are delightful, the sands glorious, the architecture of bow-fronted terraces largely intact – all things that attract London money. But it has also started to modernise its offering. There are restaurants, farmers' markets, espresso machines, bicycle tracks. I'm not sure that Thanet council has entirely embraced the modern world: its disastrous policy of allowing a giant retail park to develop outside the town means that even Poundstretcher has closed (a new entry on the High Street is the all-too-tellingly named Mr Bankrupt). But it will get there in time.
The model for the seaside is not the old-fashioned resort, but places like Whitstable, Padstow and the north Norfolk coast, fashionable spots where you might find yourself mackerel-fishing with Dave and Samantha. These towns have reinvented themselves for the free-spending middle classes, who want Alastair Sawday gastro pubs, not a kiss-me-quick trip down memory lane. World Heritage status could lock Blackpool into the past, rather than helping it face the future.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of 'Country Life'