LIKE so many other town centre shopping malls across the UK, Grangemouth’s once conveyed a sense of local pride and optimism. Opened in 1970, it had been built to meet the changing needs of a population swollen by the expansion of the petro-chemical industry beginning to dominate the economic landscape.

It was immediately apparent that the architects’ re-imagining of the old town centre was visionary and elegant. Dozens of local businesses and national retail outlets lined up alongside each other under a glass canopied roof. The frontages were all united by a dark, appealing livery conveying permanence and tradition.

On Saturday afternoon, barely a month before Christmas this place should have been hoaching with shoppers. Today, I can count them in tens and I’m immediately puzzled. The adjoining car park is free and the shopping concourse still looks handsome. Then I embark on a mini-tour of the premises and it soon becomes obvious why there are so few people here: this place is turning into a retail desert.

The first boarded up shop front seems startling and then another appears across the way …and another. And so, I start to count them before giving up at about 14. Of those that are open a familiar cast begins to gather: charity shops; nail bars, beauty salons, vaping outlets and fast food emporiums. They form a familiar mosaic of retail decline that I’ve seen right across the UK in towns not dissimilar to Grangemouth; in the north of England: Grimsby, Hartlepool and Bishop Auckland; in Scotland: Kirkintilloch, Greenock and Stranraer.

In these places political inertia and a depressing failure of imagination combines with the get-rich-quick-and-scarper approach adopted by the main local employers at the first signs of stress in their profits. Local people invest their lives in making these businesses work; their bosses view them as expendable units on a balance sheet. To the politicians their votes are the gateway to high salaries; gold-plated pensions and luxury second homes in the Highlands.     

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As always when I’ve visited places like this, the local people greet you warmly. This is their home and they are endlessly resourceful. They don’t need anyone feeling sorry for them. Even so, in Grangemouth town centre on Saturday they’re reeling from the news about the impending closure of the oil refinery, with the expected loss of 500 jobs.

“You’re here to talk about the plant, aren’t you,” says Eileen. “I’ve not even completed the question,” I reply with mock innocence. “I can just tell,” she says. There’s a twinkle in her voice. 

She and her friend, Val are heading across the road to see the Saturday matinee of this year’s Christmas panto at Grangemouth Town Hall (Goldilocks and the Four Bears, seeing as you’re asking). She points to some buildings in the old town, their faded glamour marked by aluminium sheets where the windows used to be and weeds sprouting from cracks in the roof.

I ask her why the shopping centre is so empty and desolate. “There’s nowhere to go any more,” she says. “When Farmfoods shut its doors it was a heavy blow to this community. They used to do food deliveries for old people living around here. Look at the number of second-hand shops. It would break your heart. This is it now. What will it be like when the refinery shuts?”

A woman hears our conversation and stops to listen. Her name is Catherine and she waits politely until Eileen and Val head over to the town hall. She says there’s no reason why Grangemouth shouldn’t be more vibrant. “Look at all the trains and buses coming through this part of Scotland. We’ve got three train stations and Stirling and Falkirk are just up the road. There are literally dozens of historic attractions in this area. But the local council have done very little to support this community.

The Herald: The Petroineos plant in GrangemouthThe Petroineos plant in Grangemouth

“They shut three charity shops in one day and Farmfoods was a lifeline for a lot of people. There’s only one bank in the town and the Post Office now shuts at 3pm. The rates for businesses are ridiculous.”

Later in the afternoon, our paths cross again. She needs to say something else. “We’re not taking this lying down,” she says. “There are local fayres happening in the neighbourhoods over the next few weeks. If the Council won’t do anything, we’ll do it ourselves.” It’s fierce and soft. She doesn’t want me to depart with the impression of a beaten people.

At the Ochil Craft Association, Mr And Mrs Pender, the proprietors are seeing a customer out the door. Mr Pender worked at the Grangemouth oil refinery when it was owned by BP. “It was a good place to work,” he says. He’s disconsolate at how barren the shopping centre has become. “This is supposed to be a busy time in the run-up to Christmas. We’ve had one person in today and you just saw him.

“It’s been miserable for the last six or seven months. When the refinery goes, well … I don’t even want to think about it. This will become a ghost town, like what happened in Motherwell after Ravenscraig shut.”

Mrs Pender, in a bid perhaps to defend local honour, says: “Falkirk up the road isn’t much better shopping wise. And if you look at this place there were some lovely wee shops here. Even up until a few years ago it was buzzing, and you can’t just blame Covid for it. The government is doing nothing I can see to help this place be more viable. 

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“Why did Farmfoods shut? It was a viable business yet within ten days the shop was stripped to its bare walls and the staff got only got a fortnight’s notice.”

Her thoughts, similar to all those I meet today, are with the young. “A lot of young people work at the refinery. How will they pay their mortgages? You see them every day coming off their 12-hour shifts and going into Greggs and Costa or the chip shop and Subway. What’s this place going to be when they’re no longer coming here?”

On the national stage the politicians who affect to care for Grangemouth and other towns left defenceless in the face of capital, are busy with other matters.

The conduct of Michael Matheson, the local MSP, seems to represent the dysfunctional, one-sided relationship between politicians and the communities they’re supposed to serve. He wanted these people to pay a massive phone bill while he holidayed in Morocco. It’s been further revealed he augments his ministerial income by flogging out his luxury second home on Skye.

This is considered to be safe SNP territory after all and there are vast material rewards on offer to all those seeking to win these seats in the grand party lottery. Yesterday, it was revealed that a fierce selection battle has erupted over the candidacy of Toni Giugliano, the former vice-president of the Young European Federalists with no known connection to the local community.

When places like Grangemouth are menaced by feral capitalism they wring their hands and stamp their feet as they all must do. But the people here now know where their real loyalties lie.