The failing economy of Kirkcaldy

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.


  1. MGT are still recruiting though – for BT – outgoing, at the moment… and all of next week….

  2. I haven’t been to Kirkcaldy in years, but I assume the situation is similar to that in Falkirk, which I know intimately.

    The first thing to say is that towns, and regions, do die. Historically, we have accepted this as the natural course of development – now people believe they have a right to remain in the same place for decades and should be supported in this goal.

    None the less, I am convinced that MP’s and local councillors in central Scotland have made the situation much worse than it has to be.

    The first big issue is an addiction to pet projects at the expense of the basics of wealth generation. The no-stars who populate council chambers and the Scottish Parliament love shiny regeneration projects and initiatives which bolster their egos and are far easier to deliver than much needed change in the delivery of basic services. In practice, these pet projects create short-term construction jobs and little else.

    If you truly want to attract long-standing wealth to an area you must address the issues that matter to people – in reality this is education and recreation. Witness the premium houses command which are in the catchment area of a “good” school. Crossing the road in certain areas can add £50K to the value of a home if it means a change in school. If you provide excellent schools and recreational facilities, wealthier families will move to an area, providing an immediate market for the local economy and some hope for the future as the, newly-skilled, workforce attract high value-added employers. This, however, is a ten to twenty year project which doesn’t fit wihtin the electoral cycle. Furthermore, it is not a new PFI building, but a funamental review of local education policy – something that will never happen in Brown’s local area.

    At the same time, councils are actively destroying local high-streets. At one end, they are, for some reason, eager to attract the big national retailers and will bend planning rules to accomodate them. At the other extreme, rates and taxes are waived for charity shops.

    I recently read a study which showed that for every £100 spent in a national chain, £17 stays in the local economy (in terms of wages and such like. The figure for locally-owned outlets is well over£40.

    Criticising the charity sector is controversial, but it’s arguable that they are importing poverty into towns like Kirkcaldy. They take advantage of depressed rents and tax breaks to sell an increasingly sophisticaed line of goods – with volunteer staff, none of this money stays in the local area.

    I’m not arguing that local shops should be exempt from competition, but the playing field is, thanks to our councils, currently stacked against them.

  3. Joanne — I heard that. Seems odd after shedding 65 jobs though. Maybe the workers weren’t compatible. I hope they’re still recruiting if I need to resort to them a few months down the line!

    Rory — Thanks for the interesting and insightful comment.

  4. My grandparents lived in Roomlin Gardens for about 50 years and Kirkcaldy was pretty dire in terms of opportunities for as long as I remember. Sounds like what was dire in the 80s when I left Scotland is even worse. Sad.

  5. The decline in Kirkcaldy is similar to many towns in Scotland over the past couple of decades. As you say, with their representative being chancellor for 10 years and now PM, surely it would be the pinnacle of regeneration of Scottish towns.

    Labour have left towns to decay. It’s common knowledge.

  6. I’m not sure how representative my experience is of Kirkcaldy as a whole, but my first encounter with a Kirkcaldian/Langtonian was at T in the Park ’07 where a group of them enagaged me and my friends in an interesting discussion about the condition of our relative towns and cities. Of course, due to the nature of T in the Park I recall very little of that discussion but Kirkcaldy came off in a very bad light.

    Oh, and they tried to sell us some acid. I declined due to being paranoid enough as it is.

  7. Re: Kirkcaldy High Street
    I’m not sure if you already know this but Kirkcaldy has just secured £2 million from the Scottish Government Town Centre Regeneration Fund. The High Street really is THAT bad ……..

    Apparently the Salvation Army shop is moving into the Mercat – where Happit used to be. There is also a Costa coffee opening up in October.

  8. Thanks for the comment Kay. Interesting that Kirkcaldy is getting that regeneration funding, as well as a whole host of other towns too!

    Good luck to the Salvation Army. I thought that Happit unit was doomed ever since Subway moved to the middle of the walkway in front of it, thereby completely hiding it away! You’d never know it was there just by walking past Subway now.

    Great news that Costa is opening up. Kirkcaldy has always needed a coffee place in my view. Hopefully it’ll end up being a good place to hang out during the day that isn’t Wetherspoons!

  9. Costa Coffee?
    There are already more places selling coffee in the town centre than you can shake a stick at!
    I suppose they are for oldies, though.

  10. Hi Duncan.

    Without wanting to seem rather optimistic, I actually think there are a great many reasons to be fairly confident in Kirkcaldy/Glenrothes in the coming years. Here is a list of projects under way, planning apps put to the Council or rumours;

    1) New Fife Institute in Glenrothes and Swimming Pool in Kirkcaldy – £50 million worth between them, due to start next year.

    2) I just saw in the Fife Free Press/Courier that someone is bidding to turn the old B and Q into a supermarket with offices nearby. This leaves room for the ferry port and car park.

    3) There has been alot of talk of a Vue cinema at the retail park, if this is true this will no doubt lead to other recreational places and food outlets. Talk of a large gym aswell.

    4) John Smith Business park has just opened that new easy office place, which is expected to lead to many jobs.

    5) Sainsbury’s are expected to build in Glenrothes in next two years, and land has been cleared at the asda for other shops.

    6) housing- app made for planning permission for victoria road. Along with an incredible amount of land available and able to be made available. The houses at the rail station will be attractive to wealthy commuters once the economy has turned.

    7) Victoria Hospital is getting a major upgrade, which will concentrate more jobs there.

    Now alot of this isnt great from our point if view, we have ambitions past retail and constuction, however I think that Kirkcaldy could really become an excellent commuter town for Edinburgh- the Ferry is vital and really could revolutionise KDY. 25 mins to Edin would have the fairly well off in working in Edin queing up to live in KDY.

    To my mind, a great commuter town is exactly what KDY should aim for. As has been said, ensuring great educational services is vital, and im sure we arent there, but i think in terms of recreation and cost of living, Kirkcaldy has some advantages which it can build on. We require a bit more ambition from residents, businesses and places like the Adam Smith Theatre and the Council to make KDY a bit more attractive in terms of things to do. But i think in terms of shops coming – Toys R Us and then future plans, we may well get there. Maybe a decade with no public money to spend will make places like KDY focus on getting the private sector going and attempt to make the most of themselves.

  11. Hi Richard, thanks for the comment.

    I hadn’t heard about a lot of those projects. A lot of them sound promising. I hadn’t heard about Victoria Road — sounds like at last that land will finally get used.

    Is the ferry idea definitely on the go, or still a bit of a pipe dream?

    I definitely think if people put their minds to it, Kirkcaldy / Glenrothes could be a really vibrant area. The area is fairly central to Fife, which is geographically isolated, and could pull in people from surrounding towns. To me it could be a great centre, rather than a satellite town itself.

  12. You could be right about them becoming a great centre, with Fife Council essentially situated in Glenrothes, Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline (plus 3 hospitals), It really doesnt require much in terms of private sector business to provide alot of employment and theoretically close to full employment, though not of that high a salary but nonetheless it remains a mystery how we have high unemployment here with all the public sector jobs and communter friendly positioning. I can only say that the Labour project has failed, though it never was an attempt to truly improve areas like ours.

    The problem is our best and brightest will always leave for greater opportunities elsewhere, but this is obvious and should be excepted. The way to keep a number of them is to improve transport routes elsewhere.

    It is a scandel that victoria road has that land wasted, the council wanted a museum as it was a linolium works and i think that this has put back many developments. I think the council has now accepted this wont happen and will accept housing.

    If you want to see a very impressive, ambitious project, have a look at the Dundee Waterfront. It truly is an attempt from a local authority to transform a city. Im not convinced, but i really hope that the recession doesnt put it on the back burner.

  13. i heard today from a good source that morrison’s are to locate where the old B+Q building is!. also the press is reporting costa coffee too is coming to the high street. i think in the next 5 yrs thinks are definitely going change for kirkcaldy with all this re-development.

    i just hope with all the new shops opening in the retail park the it doesnt have an impact on the high street.

  14. Good piece!

    I’m a recent Web Design & Development graduate and in same position. Few months ago the Mercat website was an issue in Fife Free Press stating that it was lacking…everything really! A website covering the entire town centre, blog, forum could keep a graduate like myself pretty busy but just trying emailing everyone right up to your local MP and requesting more initiative exist and see where i gets you.

    Why am I being paid job seekers allowance but I’m not giving tasks to do or a work experiance position?!

    I’ve spent a bit of time at MGt, almost three years so I know what they do for Kirkcaldy. They should be giving a strong mention wherever current affairs are discussed regarding The Langtoon.

    You mentioned charity work which I tried myself but in terms of offering my internet skills and it was a no go! Cut a long story short after days of this and a lot of research I came to the solid conclusion that Fife is behind in terms of the internet. Kirkcaldy is worse than Dunfermline and Glenrothes from what I could tell and most companies are failing to compete properly on internet side of business. In response I decided to offer very low cost internet services because I need money, experiance and Kirkcaldy needs better websites as one part of the entire effort to come out of the recision running.

    Well thats that really.

    Nice blog Duncan, I’ve got my own approach to social network badges too, like yours. on a very new blog.

  15. I don’t know about the ferry – But I have heard that the hovercraft will be up and running again – I know someone who has a job with it… can’t remember what date he said.. but it is within the next year… he’s counting the time down.. 🙂

  16. That’s interesting news Joanne! I’d like to hear more about it. I have some views about the trial of the hovercraft a couple of years ago — I’ll probably publish a short article about it.

  17. The Mercat used to be a nice place to sit and chat in the open centre, but now I pass through as quickly as possible to get away from that ghastly cooking smell from the Subway eating place and can someone tell me why they were allowed to sell off the Forum up the escalators to T K Marx, losing all the wee shops and eating places where one could sit and look over the river Forth while having a cup of tea and we even had tea dances up there some afternoons, very bad planning !

  18. Anyone ever heard of the New World Order? Part of their plan is to centralize ALL aspects of industry and commerce, retail parks etc. Research this and you will see it unfolding before your very eyes, slow high street declines, small business closures. Eventually, they will be all phased out completely and brought under the mantle of the UN and its corporations. Within ten years, we will all be doing our shopping for everything at massive retail parks.