It was revealed yesterday that Gordon Brown will spend part of his summer doing voluntary work in Kirkcaldy, the town where he grew up which forms the major part of his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. It is also my home town.
Some uncharitable people have suggested that his job may involve digging holes, something he has done quite enough of as Prime Minister. More cutting might be the observation that voluntary work is the only sort of work you’ll be able to find in Kirkcaldy.
A couple of weeks ago, The Times ran a piece about the economic woes which have hit Kirkcaldy which was a talking point among some of my friends. Aside from apparently inventing the demonym “Kirkcaldians” (I personally prefer “Langtonian”, named after the town’s old nickname, the Lang Toun), I think the article is largely a fair and accurate reflection of the town.
I have written before about the sorry state of the Mercat, the town’s main shopping centre which used to house my former workplace, Woolworths. Over the difficult Christmas period the Mercat went from bad to worse. But it gets just a passing mention in the Times piece, with its mere eight or more empty units.
Apparently there are thirty empty units in the High Street. There is a particularly dire section in the middle of the pedestrianised zone, where three shops in a row — which used to be the Link, Adams and Icon Clothing — now lie empty. What remains has been criticised for exhibiting the characteristics of a clone town (PDF link). Beyond that, particularly in the west end, what isn’t a chain store is most likely a pawn shop or a charity shop.
Perhaps this is not particularly unusual. The death of the High Street has been widely advertised, so this is not a problem unique to Kirkcaldy. The Times article briefly touches on the retail park. It sits on the north-western edge of the town, well away from the centre. But it is currently being expanded, a development which feels like a desperately-needed shot in the arm for Kirkcaldy.
The problem is that it just is not enough. Indeed, the clamour over the few new jobs that are available serve to bring into focus just how dire the situation is. I have lost count of the number of people that I know of applying for the same few jobs.
A new B&Q has opened, although the old one closed. A number of my former colleagues at Woolworths have ended up working there. PC World is another new store at the retail park. But so many people I know applied for jobs there. A friend who got an interview there was told that they had been bombarded with over 700 applications.
If you got rejected by PC World, you could always try applying for a job at the new Toys R Us. The only problem is that they apparently had 3,000 applications. Only a lucky 350 got an interview, with just 40 places going.
An Argos Extra has also opened up. They held an assessment day at the Jobcentre a couple of months ago. I saw it with my own eyes as I walked past it. There were two queues coming out of the Jobcentre, one in each direction. I have been told that the larger of the two queues stretched all the way to the police station, which sits at the opposite end of a street which is the best part of 200 yards long.
The store has been open for just over a week now. The good news on that front is that my friend, who transferred to work there from the existing High Street store, reports that sales have been very encouraging. Whether that is simply down to the excitement of something new opening in Kirkcaldy remains to be seen.
As for the Jobcentre itself, that continues to hire new people, including one of my friends. What they’ll do with the new staff when demand for the Jobecentre’s services is not so strong is unclear. But at the moment that feels like a distant possibility anyway. Whenever I went there I was often told they were short staffed.
In the Times article, there is a quote about the Jobcentre by a man called Tam Collins: “they expect you to stack shelves at Asda.” I got exactly that when I visited the Jobcentre. Going there is a fruitless task which I have now given up.
The Asda is a new store which has opened up in neighbouring Glenrothes. It is probably the most exciting thing in terms of employment to happen in Glenrothes for years. That is another place where a few of my former Woolworths colleagues have ended up. In a way they were lucky — Asda received over 7,000 applications for that one store.
Meanwhile, the town’s largest employer, a call centre called MGt, has recently shed 65 jobs as a result of the closure of Setanta. 65 looks like a small number compared to the amount that are already looking for work. But MGt has provided a lifeline to Kirkcaldy in terms of employment since it set up around a decade ago. Today it has around 1,000 people on its books. I dread to think what Kirkcaldy would be like if it wasn’t for MGt. That even MGt is downsizing is ominous.
But that sums up Kirkcaldy. It lost its way after the industrial decline of the previous fifty years. Now if you want a job in Kirkcaldy you need to either work in a call centre or in the precarious retail sector. And even then, good luck to you. After my previous experience of working in retail, I am avoiding it if at all possible.
Seven months since losing my job at Woolworths, and over a year since I graduated, I still haven’t found a full time job (although I’m lucky to have found bits and pieces of freelance work). I have well and truly hit the buffers, and I am now starting with a blank sheet of paper to decide on my next move.
One of my biggest mistakes was to focus my search too narrowly on a small geographical area. I certainly didn’t bet on finding a job in Kirkcaldy — it was bad enough before and clearly getting worse. But I planned on finding something in the eastern part of the central belt — somewhere within an area encompassing Fife, Dundee, Perth, Stirling or of course Edinburgh. No luck yet. I will have to broaden my search further and hope that something comes up, or hope that I will be able to rely on freelance work in the long term. I wouldn’t like to bet on relying on getting a job at a call centre in Kirkcaldy.
It is sad that Kirkcaldy is like this. This is the town of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics who looked out onto the bustling Firth of Forth, full of trade ships, and was thereby inspired to investigate sources of wealth. Today he would only be inspired to investigate the weed growth in the derelict former workplaces.
Sadder is the role of Gordon Brown. Surely, some people say, if there was one man who could save Kirkcaldy, it would be the Prime Minister and former Chancellor, who grew up here and depends on the residents’ votes. Some are truly furious about it.
Others, as the Times article notes, inexplicably give him and the government the benefit of the doubt. Talking to people, it is genuinely true that there are people in Kirkcaldy who believe that Gordon Brown is a competent leader who has somehow been stitched up. Even for failed leaders, the halo effect is still in evidence.
That is the irony. The people of Kirkcaldy are probably the one set of voters in the country that Gordon Brown can afford to take for granted. Could it be that having the local man as Prime Minister has exacerbated Kirkcaldy’s problems?
It would indeed be harsh to lay the blame wholly at Gordon Brown’s door. Kirkcaldy had problems before, and most of what has happened in the past year can be put down to the global recession.
But the Labour Party is supposed to look after the interests of people who live and work in towns just like Kirkcaldy — a former industrial town that slips ever-further into the mire, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. On the evidence I see with my own eyes, the Labour Party have failed us.