Ground zero ... Grimsby , North East Lincolnshire ... former number one fishing port ... until the 1980s.
Zoe Moore grew up in Grimsby, not far from her family’s chip shop. She visited the docks every day with her mum to buy the fish they would later skin, fillet and fry. Now Moore is a manager for Young’s Seafood, which supplies the breaded cod found in the freezers of corner shops countrywide; she attended last year’s carnival dressed as a fish finger. The twentysomething is a Grimbarian made good, but she’s not celebrating. Something is wrong in her town.
“Mum’s had CCTV [installed] on her house,” says Moore. “People try to steal cars on her street. They even cut the brake lines [of her car] and put fireworks in it. There have been stabbings. It’s awful.”
Things were rough when Moore was a child, but since then the area has declined badly. One of the people she went to school with was recently killed in a drug deal. After police got wise to dealers using teenagers to run drugs for them, some now use primary school kids. Moore shows me a video she took on Freeman Street in East Marsh – once a thriving main drag that, in a bit of Grimsby lore meant to underline its affluence, housed not one but two Marks & Spencer stores – that shows two men on the synthetic drug spice, shuffling and twitching on the spot.
Grimsby’s problems in 2018 are manifold: skills shortages, long-term jobless families, deprivation, drugs, homelessness, empty homes, fly-tipping, children in care. The government’s indices of deprivation in 2015 ranked East Marsh as the fourth worst place in the UK for employment, the second for crime and the worst for education, skills and training.
Channel 4 filmed the “poverty porn” documentary Skint here in 2014, which added to an endless reel of breadline absurdities served up by the local tabloid, the Grimsby Telegraph (recent headline: “Mystery over blood-soaked man wandering shoeless in East Marsh”). It all cast Grimsby as a damned place, grotesquely parodied by Sacha Baron Cohen in his prole-baiting B-movie of the same name.
Some feel Grimsby is damned by its name alone, which according to legend derives from its ninth-century Danish founder, Grim. There are, however, big plans to change the town’s fate.
The Greater Grimsby Town Deal proposal is chaired by the Grimsby-born co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, and has former chancellor Norman Lamont on its board. (Ross is a major Tory donor.) The plan, which Theresa May called “ambitious”, was mentioned in the government’s recent industrial strategy white paper. It aims to bolster the local economy by £216m a year, by growing the renewable energy industry, creating “enterprise zones” and encouraging investment in logistics, manufacturing, chemicals/petrochemicals and food processing.
Meanwhile, North East Lincolnshire Council is talking up a new economic plan for the region, targeting 8,800 jobs over the next 15 years – plus 13,000 new homes.
Another project, Our Place in the World 2018, run by developers Tom and Claire Shutes in partnership with InnovationRCA and UnLtd, is a callout to startups, students and the local community to submit business plans, ideas and social enterprises that will contribute to the town’s regeneration. Tom Shutes’s grandfather used to keep boats in Grimsby, and he says he is investing in the area after seeing the decline firsthand. He wants to build a centre of excellence for construction designed by DT GCSE students to give educational support and produce apprentices. “If a local person can say, ‘I designed that,’ I think you are already a long way to breaking the back of the chip on their shoulder,” he says.
But bring up regeneration in Grimsby and people roll their eyes. While in a cab heading down Freeman Street, the driver pointed out to me out a stretch of fairly new pavement, and some angled street lights. “They built that pavement, but had to pull it up again and re-lay it. They had to move the lights because buses couldn’t get under them.”
There have been endless regeneration plans. Some have come to fruition before quickly dying, like the Riverhead development in the 2000s, which attempted to bring cafe culture to the town centre but has since emptied of the chain bars and restaurants it once held.
Many others, such as the repeatedly stated plan for a pedestrian-friendly marina by the docks, never even reached the development stage.
The two types of city
In Grimsby’s 1930s heyday, fishermen used to head to Freeman Street as soon as they were off the trawler, straight to the Lincoln or the Corporation Arms to spend their bountiful earnings. A century previously, Grimsby had been a fairly sleepy fishing village, but by the 1890s it was on the way to becoming the biggest fishing port in the world. In the mid 20th-century, trawlers were bringing in 500 tonnes of fish a day.
Today, Grimsby still has a thriving indoor market (paid for by the EU and the Enrolled Freemen of Grimsby, an organisation that dates back to the 13th century), but the further north towards the docks you walk, the emptier and more dilapidated things get. A local businessman says sex workers wait around at night for lorries to take them to the deserted docks. “It’s a legacy of the old fishing days.”
There is scant legacy to be found elsewhere. After a long decline, the fishing industry died in the mid 1980s, its owners selling their trawlers to companies in Aberdeen or Japan. Unlike Hull across the river, currently basking in its year as Capital of Culture, Grimsby is the Humber city that never was.
“This community was solely built around an industry that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Stephen Ryder, managing director of charity Community Press Office (CPO), which specialises in up-skilling residents and giving extensive help to families in crisis. “I grew up in York in the 1980s, and spent a lot of time in Leeds and Sheffield and places like that, and they were run down. You go there now, and they have been transformed. There has been regeneration money here in the last 20 years, but you can’t see anything.”
Some say Grimsby’s plight is due to its isolation, in an area of north-east Lincolnshire surrounded by field and marshland. Cleethorpes, Grimsby’s slightly better-heeled neighbour on this lip of the Humber estuary, is at the end of the train line. The Humber bridge, which takes you over the river to Hull, is a 24-mile drive west of Grimsby, meaning the town doesn’t receive any passing traffic. If you come to Grimsby, you come for a reason. By train, the East Midlands local connection is often a one-carriage service that gets painfully full; local Conservative MP Martin Vickers has been lobbying for a new high-speed rail link to Grimsby for years, to no avail.
Yet while faster transport would be welcome, shortening the time to and from London would not be a magic bullet. Look at Doncaster or Stoke, around an hour and a half from London, says Centre for Cities head of policy and research Paul Swinney: “Both places don’t do very well in terms of the performance of their economies. They have a low skills profile like Grimsby, which suggests high-speed rail wouldn’t have much of an impact. We have to understand why businesses aren’t coming to a place like Grimsby first.”
There are two broad types of city, says Swinney. Firstly, cities that saw traditional industry leave but reinvented themselves. These places reversed their decline with jobs in new industries that didn’t exist 25 years ago. Brighton is a good example. After the rise of package holidays it fell into decline, but since the 1970s it has attracted knowledge-based service activity, resulting in high-paid, high-skilled jobs.
Grimsby, on the other hand, typifies the second type: cities that “replicated” their economy, replacing reliable low-skill jobs that paid well (in this case, fishing) with precarious low-skilled jobs that don’t pay well (casual factory work). The Centre for Cities, which looks at the largest 63 cities in the UK and defines a city as a settlement of a certain size and economy, stopped tracking Grimsby in 2011.
Though it has long been a byword for the fall of the British fishing industry, Grimsby also continues to reel from years of bad planning decisions, such as the unpopular 1960s redevelopment in Grimsby town centre (or “Top Town”) that catered for car-reliant consumers and erased much of the old town – including, some say, a big chunk of Grimsby’s character. Not a lot of people know that Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine in the 1971 Brit noir classic Get Carter, was local to these parts. The Humber-born writer Ted Lewis’s book Jack Returns Home is set in Scunthorpe and Grimsby, but when it came time to shoot the film, director Mike Hodges preferred Newcastle. “Grimsby had been decimated by developers,” Hodges recalled. “The pubs, cafes and dodgy boarding houses – gone.”
Nick Triplow, another Humber-based writer, has just had a book published on the sad life of Lewis, who died an alcoholic at 42. Triplow moved to the region in 2001 to manage a regeneration funding programme. Since then, he says over a pint in the Wetherspoon pub that occupies the former grand Yarborough Hotel (erected shortly after the railway station next door in the mid-19th century when Grimsby was thriving), he has seen a lot of money spent with little effect. He remembers particularly the New Labour days, when Grimsby was earmarked for regeneration and Barnsley was tipped to become the next Tuscany (spoiler alert: it didn’t).
“Some very well-paid consultants came up and told us of all the wonderful plans for Grimsby, everybody got very excited about it, and nothing happened,” says Triplow. “There were agencies in the town who were taking a fair chunk of funding to create jobs. [The agencies] would say they had extremely good figures for the amount of jobs created. So why are there so many unemployed people? If somebody said they wanted to start a window cleaning service, they’d say that was a ‘job created’. They had no idea if they were still in business later on.”
Yet grassroots organisations have learned from this short-termism. CPO started in 2002 making publications with local communities to educate and empower. It was only meant to last four years, but it has since grown into one of Grimsby’s key grassroots charities, among other things securing £340,000 in lottery funding along with sister charity CatZero to deliver a programme to support entire families approaching crisis point in East Marsh.
But what Grimsby needs, says the CPO’s Ryder, is an almost 2012 Olympics-sized investment. For him, the key comparison is Liverpool.
“You can’t tell me that the underlying issues that existed on Merseyside in the 1980s are any different from the underlying issues that exist here now,” he says. “We’ve got a skills gap, we’ve got an investment gap, we’ve got huge social problems and we’ve got problems with our infrastructure. It’s got to be a proper plan.”
But any lasting regeneration has to bring local people along with it, he stresses. “Parochial doesn’t even define how people are here. People don’t go into Top Town or the seaside.” He has heard Rutland Street is the most criminal street in the country: “Whether that’s true or not, for some it’s almost like the old Millwall mentality: ‘Nobody likes us, we don’t care.’” Residents have started East Marsh United – not a football team, but a plan to somehow face one of the most acute and toxic combinations of factors facing anywhere in the UK.
“The way I look at it, Grimsby is in recovery,” says Sam Delaney, a former London broker who left the City lifestyle behind after his own alcohol-fuelled crisis. He now runs an abstinence-based art programme, Creative Start, from an industrial unit that doubles as a breakfast club for people who can’t afford a decent meal. It’s worthwhile work, but also tough: every so often, someone he is working with dies, and sometimes it’s him who finds the body.
I have caught him on an off day, he says: a new mural celebrating Grimsby’s glorious past, painted by some of the most vulnerable members of its present, has been vandalised just two weeks after completion. “People are positive here, but there is a negative element. They don’t want good stuff to happen.”
Spend any length of time in Grimsby, though, and the town doesn’t feel like a lost cause. The place is teeming with people trying to alleviate the hardships of fellow Grimbarians. “People are worried about Grimsby, worried about their children,” says Jane Mouncey, who runs a sewing club that caters for women on the 1950s-built Nunsthorpe estate who want to learn new skills. “There is great concern, but I think great hope as well. This centre is phenomenal. There are 150 people a day accessing services here.”
Mouncey’s mum was brought up on the garden city-style estate, so she knows the pride that used to be felt around here. Nunsthorpe has its own share of problems, but locals say the place has improved a lot thanks to work by Linda Dello and the Second Avenue Resource Centre, who took over the old Catholic school. The building now functions as a community cafe, educational resource, social club, and even a supermarket run by Company Shop. It sells fresh produce that Waitrose and Marks and Spencer were going to throw out. As if referencing Grimsby’s past, all fish are £1.
When Mouncey first returned to Grimsby, she worked for Shoreline Housing Partnership. Shoreline owns six big blocks in East Marsh that are all vacant, she says: the bedroom tax has meant that people can’t afford them as social housing, so they’re all coming down this year – the largest demolition job in the country.
“That exact narrative is precisely why people voted so emphatically for Brexit,” says Ryder. “They sit there thinking, ‘I’m having to give up a perfectly good flat and move into a tiny pseudo-squat just so I can live?’”
Wconomically, the big hope today is the renewables industry. Ørsted is investing in windfarms: its base here is set to support the Westermost Rough, Race Bank and Hornsea Project One, Two, Three, Four windfarms, and it has recently taken over the Lincs windfarm at Skegness. Construction takes three to four years, and once the farms are in place Ørsted continue their maintenance. The life cycle of a windfarm is 25 years, meaning Ørsted should be here for the long haul; and people desperately want renewables to fill in where fishing left off.
There is a big question, though, about how many people Ørsted can possibly employ in the area. Currently, it has fewer than 200 workers here. What’s more, how do you connect local people to the jobs that are created? The company’s managing director, Matthew Wright, has visited the local John Whitgift Academy to speak to year-10s about the energy industry; Ryder says they need to start much younger. “If Ørsted want to make a lasting change, they need to sit down and ask: what are the issues that are affecting the community? How can a child who is in year two now have a realistic chance of earning really good money in this industry later on?”
Angela Blake, director of economy and growth for North East Lincolnshire Council, points to 195 hectares of land earmarked for a new enterprise zone along the south bank of the Humber. The river in general is being touted as the “energy estuary”, and there has been a big increase in enquiries from the renewable energy sector – not just wind, but solar farms and energy from waste recycling. Infrastructural improvements are planned; Network Rail is investing in freight.
Long-term political infighting on North East Lincolnshire council takes much of the blame for the town’s inertia, but austerity hasn’t helped either. Blake has been with the local authority since 2011, and she feels they have since made progress. The council are in early discussions with universities about a higher-education presence for Top Town, and at Alexandra Docks, the old Victoria Mills to be repurposed. The shopping centre Freshney Place has meanwhile proposed a cinema redevelopment at the riverhead – but, with a multiplex cinema already three miles away in Cleethorpes, not to mention a global Netflix addiction, some say it feels like a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century question.
Tate Modern: Grimsby depot
And what if it is really a 19th-century question?
Situated behind some unceremonious grey fencing on a securitised street run by the Association of British Ports (ABP), the Ice Factory at Grimsby docks was built in 1898 to keep fresh the huge volume of fish being brought into the port.
A marvel of engineering when it opened, it ceased operations in 1990 and has now become a looming example of the trouble with heritage. The structure has its own dedicated trust that campaigns for its future, and the machinery inside is Grade-I listed, but that hasn’t stopped a layer of rust, algae and pigeon excrement from covering its once-cherished interior.
ABP owns the Ice Factory but is tight-lipped about any plans to regenerate it; the company’s Humber director, Simon Bird, says it is in discussions with North East Lincolnshire council. He describes Grimsby as a port with a positive future: the Humber is the busiest estuary in the UK for trade, with 80m tonnes of cargo passing through Grimsby, Immingham and Hull annually; Grimsby also “supports something like 7,000 jobs in the immediate area”, Bird notes.
The company has been granted planning consent to develop 100 acres of land to the west of Grimsby for more “car storage and enhancement”, to help with the huge volume of car imports and exports (although the land development proper will create a relatively small number of jobs).
But the port’s lively economic statistics are in stark contrast to its atmosphere of stasis. It feels like a high-security ghost town. The area known as the Kasbah wouldn’t look out of place in a deleted scene of Get Carter, its old terraces housing abandoned businesses, including a net-curtained greasy spoon that looks like the owners did a runner decades ago. Nearby, there are food-processing warehouses still working, and the fish market carries on, though predominantly selling produce caught by trawlers from elsewhere.
The Kasbah is due to become a conservation area as part of Grimsby’s heritage initiative; Historic England and North East Lincolnshire council are in conversation about its future, although ABP isn’t keen on public access. Bird was present at the recent regeneration meetings chaired by David Ross and says ABP wants the best for Grimsby. He is proud of the 700 jobs ABP provides for the Humber, and its work with the sea cadets, but ultimately his job is to make the port a success for investors in Canada and Singapore, not a local public desperately seeking a sense of collective pride and local identity.
Grimbarians feel isolated many times over: from London, from the rest of the country, from the docks where husbands said goodbye to wives before a few treacherous weeks at sea, and from the dead fishing industry through which it faced the world. Grimsby has become a place where municipal decisions are always pending. There are no guarantees with this latest wave of hopes: it could all be scuppered by more political infighting, or private enterprise pulling out. Who knows what will happen after Brexit.
Marc Renshaw is a local artist whose work thrives on this sense of inertia. It imagines incongruous uses for Grimsby’s beyond-repair spaces: in his doctored photographs, the old Ice Factory becomes Tate Modern, Grimsby Depot; the abandoned dockside caff is the London Stock Exchange: Grimsby. “I just imagined different companies based there,” he says. “Why not put Bloomberg there?”
The work has a Shrigleyesque irony, but also a sense of optimism, and above all, says Renshaw, potential. In Top Town, on a high street filled with boarded-up lots, Renshaw and his partner, Ellie Collins, who is also an artist, are preparing to opening an art space called Blip in a recently abandoned clothes shop. Grimsby isn’t a place people usually visit for art, but the couple are still excited about the potential of the space. “I don’t know whether Grimsby has an audience for critical art yet, but you don’t until you’ve tried,” says Collins. “And this is a good way to start.”
As Collins sets up the window display, a woman carrying shopping bags comes in. She used to work here years ago, she says, when it was a hairdressing parlour, and is just glad someone has filled the space with life again.