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How Post-Industrial Decline Created 'Britain's Unhealthiest High Street'

Grimsby has been accused of having the unhealthiest high street in the UK, due to its high number of fast food outlets. Here's what happened when we visited the former fishing town.

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Nov 8 2018, 4:19pm

Photos by author.

It’s a depressingly overcast day when I arrive in Grimsby, which doesn’t do the coastal town any favours. Neither does its name, one that allegedly comes from a ninth century Danish fisherman named Grim, who founded a settlement here (“by” is the Old Norse word for "village.") To my ear, however, Grimsby sounds less like ancient Viking land and more like a doomed fictional town in a Martin Amis novel, populated by characters with names like “Dave Cheat” and “Nicola Dupe.”

Depictions of Grimsby in popular culture are similarly unflattering. In the 2016 Sacha Baron Cohen film Grimsby, the town is home to benefit cheats and football hooligans, and twinned with Chernobyl. (During the promotion for the film, Cohen is reported to have said that he hoped it would take “Grimsby off the map.”) Skint, a Channel 4 documentary series on long-term unemployment, filmed its second series in Grimsby, and its portrayals of people struggling with benefit cuts and alcohol abuse were criticised as "poverty porn”.

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Grimsby, a coastal town in Lincolnshire.
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Grimsby's Victoria Street, the town's main retail area.

Last week came more bad PR for the town: Grimsby was shamed with having the unhealthiest high street in the UK by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). The charity came to this conclusion after judging high streets across the UK on four categories: whether its outlets encourage healthy lifestyle choices, promote social interaction, allow greater access to health care services, or improve mental wellbeing. A leisure centre, for example, would score seven points, while a fast food spot or off-licence scores minus-two. Grimsby’s high street, with its Pizza Hut, Greggs, McDonald’s, and numerous betting shops, scored the lowest out of 69 other high streets across the UK (excluding London, which has its own category).

It’s no secret that Grimsby has suffered a decline familiar to many post-industrial towns. During the 1950s, it was the largest and busiest fishing port in the world but an unsuccessful confrontation with Iceland over fishing territories in the North Sea, known as the “cod wars,” resulted in the decline of its fishing industry. The consequences are still being felt today: in 2015, Grimsby was rated as the fourth worst place for unemployment in England, the second worst for crime, and lowest in the country for education, skill, and training. One of its wards, East Marsh, has been named as the second most deprived area in England.

I visit Grimsby’s town centre four days after the RSPH’s damning indictment of its high street. It’s a weekday lunchtime, so most of the people about on Victoria Street are pensioners doing their shopping or teens grabbing a Subway lunch. It’s hardly the most beautiful retail street—there are empty shop fronts, betting shops (I spot three in a row), and numerous fast food chains—but it's also not massively different from what you’d find in any regional town or city dealing with the impact of post-industrialism and years of austerity.

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A branch of Subway stands next to a bakery and an empty shop front.
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A meal from the Pizza Hut on Victoria Street.

“People have got it in for Grimsby,” local butcher Carl tells me. “Grimsby no worse than Hull or Doncaster.”

“There's betting shops and takeaways all over, isn't there?” he continues. “At least that's another shop on the high street. That's better than an empty shop, isn't it?”

Carl works in Top Town Market, a covered market at the end of Grimsby’s high street that wasn’t included in the results of RSPH’s high street report, which many locals say distorted the findings. Inside I find a greengrocers, an old-fashioned sweet stall, a barbers, and many other busy retail units. The stalls are adorned with Christmas decorations and custom is surprisingly lively for a weekday.

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Carl, a butcher who works in Grimsby's Top Town Market.
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Lincolnshire sausage rolls on sale at the butchers.

Linda Simmons, who works at a bakery in the market, agrees that Grimsby gets an unfair rap. “I was [shocked], actually, because I've lived here all my life, and I've seen worse places,” she tells me over a counter selling custard tarts and apple pies. “I've seen places that have got lots more [takeaways].”

While many locals are quick to defend Grimsby, they are also keenly aware that Victoria Street has seen better days. Indeed a 2017 study from auditing firm Price Waterhouse Cooper puts Grimsby as one of the worst areas in the UK affected by shop closures, with 16 major stores on the high street closing last year. These included LloydsPharmacy and Game.

“It would be great if it changed, and if different sort of retailers would come and sell different things, but there's just not enough footfall,” Catherine, who works at Top Town Market’s sweet stall, explains. “There are more empty shops than full, I think. The rents on the places are extortionate, and people can't afford to pay rent on the places anymore because they're not doing the trade they used to do.”

“Grimsby's a lot worse than it's ever been,” says Carl. “And I've lived here all my life.”

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Another butcher prepares a leg of beef in the covered market.
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Signs to Grimsby's now largely derelict dock.

North East Lincolnshire Council has made numerous attempts to improve Grimsby’s town centre although many have been unsuccessful. “Riverhead Grimsby,” a project launched in the 2000s that aimed to regenerate a riverside building in the town centre, filling it with cafes and food spots, now contains fewer restaurants than it did to begin with, after developers were unable to sell the units. Today, the Greater Grimsby Town project aims to grow the local economy by £216 million a year through the building of 7,700 new houses, funding “cultural and leisure facilities,” and redeveloping historic sites such as the derelict Victoria Mill silo. The Grade II-listed building was notoriously bought by the council in 2017 for £1.

Grimsby’s town centre is struggling, but what do we gain from lambasting its high street as the unhealthiest in the country? Toby Green, a senior policy and research executive at RSPH, tells me that the charity’s intention is to encourage more funding from central government to places like Grimsby.

“People’s lives and choices are shaped greatly by their environments,” he explains via email, “and so when we see a proliferation of outlets like fast food shops and bookmakers in certain areas, it’s no surprise that this is linked to health outcomes among the community.”

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Fruit and vegetables on a stall in Top Town Market.

“The unhealthiest high streets are most often found in socioeconomically deprived areas,” continues Green. “There is much that local authorities can do to help make healthier options the easy option, but they must first be properly funded by central government if the root causes are to be addressed.”

Although the objective of the RSPH report is to help Britain’s most deprived high streets, there’s no doubt that a judgement like the one Grimsby received last week has adverse effects on a community.

“I think [the report] will do a big damage to us because I think a lot of retailers won't want to come with the empty shops,” Simmons tells me. “You don't need that write-up about us.”

Just as takeaways aren’t solely to blame for obesity, you can't distill Grimsby’s problems into the fast food outlets and betting shops that populate its "unhealthy" high street. They’re due to poverty, lack of job opportunities, and cuts to local authority funding.

Don’t blame pizza or the high street. Blame the dough.