Government statistics authority releases council heroin death map that no one asked for

Blackpool, England’s heroin overdose capital. Image: Getty.

You know, I’ve got a lot on today, I really do. There are half a dozen things I’ve been meaning to write, a podcast I need to edit, and my editing backlog has now got so long that some of the people who sent me their copy during the latter years of the Boris Johnson mayoralty are starting to get impatient (and if you’re one of them, sorry).

But then sometimes, I see something, and I immediately know that this what my day is about now. This Office for National Statistics (ONS) dataset, whose existence Tyron Wilson was kind enough to point me towards, is a case in point. There are three things about it that are completely amazing:

1) The ONS publishes council-level statistics about where residents are most likely to die of opioid overdoses. Which is amazing.

2) The page on its website containing these statistics contains the following sentence:

Places that may have been more synonymous with family holidays are among the 10 areas that saw the highest rates of drugs misuse fatalities where heroin and/or morphine were mentioned on the death certificate.

Which is even more amazing.

3) The most amazing thing of all, though, is that – as part of its commitment to user-friendly data – the ONS has produced an embeddable interactive map highlighting Britain’s smack overdose hotspots. They’re in red. Hover over a dot and you’ll get the data.

Rate of heroin and morphine deaths by misuse, 2014 to 2016, England and Wales. Image: ONS.

It is, to be fair, a very effective map. Each block represents a local authority. Grey dots mean fewer than three deaths in three years – numbers so small the concept of a death rate becomes effectively meaningless. (There’s also no data for Scotland or Northern Ireland.) 

Light blues mean a fairly low opioid death rate of under 2 per 100,000 people; dark blue is a slightly worrying 2 to 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Red is higher still: just 14 councils breach this barrier.

And yes, as the release points out, most of those – 10 of the 14 – are on the coast, though not all of them are resorts. (Neath Port Talbot, despite appearing landlocked on this map, is on the Bristol Channel.) Most of these have a death rate of under 6 per 100,000 – but in Hastings it was 6.5, and in in-land Burnley it’s 7.6.

Highest by far is Blackpool, the north’s biggest seaside resort, where for every 100,000 people, fully 14 of them died through heroin or morphine misuse between 2014 and 2016. As the ONS notes, “Some of the 10 places also have high levels of deprivation, which could link to increased drug use.” Well, yes.

Source: Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning, England and Wales, ONS.

It’s fascinating in its way. But it’s also slightly bizarre. What are we, the public, meant to do with this information? I’m all for open data – but who, exactly, is this embeddable interactive map for? Answers on a postcard.

Bit of seaside-related humour for you, there.

I can’t wait for the follow up on cocaine deaths.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.