Britain's most profitable town? Go tell the locals

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A sign displayed on the approach to the northern town comedians love to hate proclaims: "Welcome to Great Grimsby - the food capital of Europe".

A sign displayed on the approach to the northern town comedians love to hate proclaims: "Welcome to Great Grimsby - the food capital of Europe".

But it is not the myriad burger bars and "value for money'' cafés that have brought culinary success to this former fishing port. Its reinvention as a centre for frozen food processing has given some hope to the local economy. A survey published today by Dun & Bradstreet, the business information group, identifies Grimsby as the most profitable town in Britain.

While some in the town may take pride in this corporate success, the grim reality of life in Grimsby is that it has the lowest wages in the North. Last year, average earnings fell by £10 a week. Almost 5,400 people - 8.1 per cent of the population - are out of work and claim benefit. A three-bedroom house in the town can be yours for as little as £10,500.

Susan Phillips's message to the affluent business burghers of Grimsby was unprintable. Hands on apron-clad hips, the 47-year-old surveyed her clientele at the net-curtained Stockpot café, tucking into a hearty portion of fish, chips and mushy peas for £3.30. "There's no money for ordinary people. It's bad and I can't see it getting any better. They ripped the guts out of this place when the fishing industry closed down,'' she said.

Down the road, Susan Amos, 41, was peering in the window of the Adeco Jobcentre, searching for work for her 17-year-old son. Almost without exception, the manual jobs advertised offered no more than the minimum wage of £3.70 an hour.

"There's never any work for teenage boys. Ryan has put his name down at loads of places but he doesn't get any response. No wonder the kids are moving away from Grimsby,'' said the childcare officer. Even the house prices are static, she said. She was offered just £55,000 for her four-bedroom house. But, judging by the nearby estate agents, Mrs Amos was not doing badly. A three-bedroom house in Alder View was selling for £10,500.

The shopping area of Freeman Street, where pawnbrokers dominate the road, was an even sorrier sight. "You've only got to look down here to see that the money is not going into this area,'' explained Gordon Macdonald.

"Freeman Street is so depressing,'' agreed Pat Woolliss, tucking into one of the food capital of Europe's pork buns. Standing in the former market place, now flanked by an "Everything One Pound" shop and a supermarket emblazoned with bargain offers, her husband, Martin, added: "This is supposedly the upmarket part of Grimsby, if you can believe it.''

But Mr Woolliss is experiencing some of the benefits of the business boom. His employer, the oil company Conoco, had record profits last year, which were reflected in a big Christmas bonus. His wife's company, however, is about to announce its second round of redundancies in two years.

Duncan Watt, managing director of Associated Cold Stores and Transport, one of the companies mentioned in the survey, believes his firm is feeding its profits back into the community. The company, opened in Grimsby in 1934, was one sideline to the fishing business that survived. It had a turnover of £31m and a profit of £3.2m in 1999. "We employ 200 people in the town and we donate to local charities,'' he said.

But the large number of cold storage and pharmaceutical companies, attracted to Grimsby its docks, low pay rates and available land, may not be so conscientious. Their profits do not appear to be filtering back into the town. "We see a shop close down every two to three weeks,'' said Mr Woolliss. So why stay in Grimsby? He shrugged his shoulders and grinned: "It's home, isn't it? I wouldn't live anywhere else.''