Fishy tale in Golden Grimsby

Profitable and prosperous? Try telling that to struggling workers in the freshly famous Humberside town, says Esther Oxford
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The Independent Culture
There is a new "posh" end of town in Grimsby. West side. On the industrial estate. The council has planted daffodils by the roadside. It gives the place a "prosperous feel", said the council officer, on our half-hour tour of the town.

Clients are taken in by it. Evidence? Business is booming. According to a survey by the business information service Dun and Bradstreet International, 89.5 per cent of Grimsby's companies made a profit last year, giving the town the highest proportion of profitable companies in the UK.

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby, says the survey results come as no surprise. Grimbarians, he says, have known for years that Grimsby is a "good place to do business". It is only the "condescending Southerners" who blight Grimsby's worthy image. The local newspaper goes along with this line. Grimsby is "the profit making capital of Britain" it announced under Monday's headline "Great, Grimsby!"

The Labour-run council should take much of the credit, says Mr Mitchell. "It has promoted us as Europe's food town - with the biggest concentration of food production, cold storage, technical expertise, and gateway to the EU." Birds Eye and Blue Crest are among the town's big name companies.

The council has also been active in procuring government and EU grants, keeping the price of office space low, setting up the economic development unit to train the unemployed and promoting relations between big businesses and local companies. "We've tried to be proactive since the mid-Eighties", says Muriel Barker, chair of the Grimsby economic development committee. "We are thrilled by these results."

But many local people have yet to be convinced. "If the businesses have made a profit, they've done it at our expense," says a Blue Crest docks labourer, hauling a crate of sole coated in ice on to the back of his truck. "I work from six in the morning to three in the afternoon, shifting fish in the freezing cold. For that I take home £125 for a 40-hour week."

Another Blue Crest worker in her mid-thirties describes how she spends eight hours a day sorting big fish from little fish on a moving conveyor belt. She laughs when I ask if she feels prosperous. Sipping a cup of tea, with black-bagged, encrusted eyes, she says that, well, actually, she does. Pleased with my expression, she explains. Six months ago she worked as a petrol-station manager in Norwich. Her take-home pay was £96 a week. Now her wage hovers around £120.

Does she enjoy her work? She laughs bitterly. What has enjoyment to do with it? She feels lucky to have a full-time job; she has a mortgage to pay. Most of her friends have only been offered part-time work. That way, she says, the factory owners can save on national insurance, holiday and sick pay.

Frank Flear is chairman of Booker Fish Division, which controls 12 companies - including Blue Crest. Asked how much the company pays its workers, he pleads ignorance. "Is this going to be a political article?" he asks.,Are there any profit-sharing schemes in the company? Mr Flear is again dismissive. But in the factory canteen his employees are derisive. "They've offered us shares - they've got posters asking us to buy them all over the place. But who can afford to buy them? Birds Eye pay well - but over here we've got just enough money to cover bills."

Although the council is pleased with the survey, it does admit that the town of 60,000 could not reasonably be described as "prosperous". Twenty per cent of Grimsby men are unemployed - rising to 40 per cent in some worst hit areas. To add to their troubles, one of the largest snack firms in the area has just announced that it will be closing a factory with a loss of 1,000 jobs.

One explanation for the freakish figure touted for the town's economic success could be that the Dun and Bradstreet analysis, which focused on the financial year ending April 1994, is out of date. A more recent survey from the Institute of Directors shows that business confidence in nearby north Lincolnshire has fallen to a four-year low, with concerns over increases in costs, inflation and interest rates. This is a national phenomenon, says Sean Conolly, policy officer at Grimsby - not only a local one.

Investment could also be a factor in the apparent contradiction between high business profits and rising unemployment, says Peter Coleman, estates officer for Grimsby. Much investment has focused on modern production methods - at the expense of jobs.

Either way, Grimbarians have refused to be swept up in the rags-to-riches hype. "We should not forget the large number of small and medium family firms that work hard to make a living and whose profits are modest," Trevor Knowles, president of the Grimsby and Immingham Chamber of Commerce, reminded the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. The mayor, Alec Bovill, was also anxious to keep matters in perspective: "High profits do not mean lots of jobs," he said.

Grimbarians seem over-familiar with hardship. One drunk, homeless, unemployed fisherman spent half an hour reminiscing about pay - and how unreliable it was.

Down on the docks yesterday morning there were others like him; listless, aimless and depressed - all wearing rubber boots. The ancient concrete shelter, rusting ships and abandoned conveyer belts were grim and daily reminders of Grimsby's once prosperous fishing industry. The men talked gaily of a time when 84 deep-water trawlers and 92 middle-water vessels were needed to bring the fish in. Now most of the fish coming in to dock are from abroad or other parts of the country. Unless men are willing to lug loaded crates around, jobs are scarce.

"Those who call us prosperous have not been to Grimsby. It is the loneliest place on earth," sighs Ken Duffield, 40.

Mr Duffield used to work in construction. Now he sticks to taxi driving. He insisted on giving me the alternative town tour (the night before a council worker had shown me the prosperous side: booming business parks, the brand-new Heritage Centre and Sainsbury's): Bexley Court where there have been two murders in five years; Comber Place - good for drugs. Nelson House - a young chap jumped 20 floors to his death last year. Then he drove up Ainslie Street - once a thriving shopping street - now a row of boarded-up buildings. "I could do this all day", Mr Duffield says sarcastically. "You know - a tour of this rich town of ours."

He went on: People's Park where the child molesters hang out and where kids dump their cars once they have finished joy-riding. Grange Estate - race-track for car enthusiasts/criminals. "This is a young kids' town," Mr Duffield says. ""There are no prospects for people my age."