Gina Davidson: Don’t let future bypass towns

1,700 jobs will be lost after the closure of Hall's of Broxburn
1,700 jobs will be lost after the closure of Hall's of Broxburn
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IT has taken me some time to get used to the idea that I no longer live in Edinburgh. Forced to move out of town by a combination of work demands and house prices, we alighted in a place which we knew little about except the unflattering reports we’d read in this paper in the past.

The trepidation about moving to Broxburn wasn’t helped by the sound of the flutes and drums of the Orange march on our first day there and soon after the dubious claim to fame that the first ever tazer use by a Lothian and Borders cop happened on the main street.

But over the past few years we’ve come to appreciate the tight-knit community we now live in. We don’t just know our neighbours, we know people in the next street and the next. And while there are still some things which are of concern (the local Labour councillor, for instance, defending Orange walks because the Catholics had their own school), when it came to rescuing the under-threat Gala Day, the whole community pulled together and it went ahead this year as normal.

And now, the community is once again attempting to stand together – this time in the face of the potential destruction of the town.

Hall’s factory is a place which you drive past without thinking too much about what goes on inside. That it processes meat is enough anyone needs to know. Unless you work there, of course. And 1700 people do.

Now it’s threatened with closure as its owner, Vion Food UK, claims it loses £79,000 a week and is no longer viable. The company has also turned down an offer from the Scottish Government to buy it.

Without Hall’s, or an employer of that size in the town, the future for Broxburn is rather bleak. The families who lose their jobs will likely have to move elsewhere to look for work, particularly the many Poles who have moved into the town over the last few years. That in turn will have a huge impact on the small independent shops which line the unattractive Main Street, which is already blighted by a large empty supermarket and a 1970s-style shopping parade.

The town was still reeling from the loss of sweet factory McCowan’s which closed last year when the Hall’s announcement was made. Despite pledges that there was a buyer interested in the McCowan site, it still closed with the loss of 106 jobs. The Glenmorangie bottling plant sits empty as well, although most staff were kept on, if transferred to Livingston’s Alba campus.

And there lies one of the major problems. Too much focus has been put on the growth of Livingston at the expense of West Lothian’s other towns – apart from Linlithgow, which sits like an outpost of Edinburgh, comfortable in its royal history and sky-high house prices. Livingston has sucked in any prosperity which used to exist in Broxburn, Bathgate, Armadale and Whitburn. It’s like a black hole at the centre of the region, attracting all economic light and refusing to let it go again.

As a result, while places like Broxburn may have expanded thanks to the pre-recession housing boom, there’s been no concurrent economic expansion. In fact, quite the reverse, until it has reached the point where there is only one big name in town, and once its gone then it’s game over.

There have been plans for a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s in Broxburn, providing much needed employment, and while Tesco has received its permission, work has yet to begin. Sainsbury’s is still waiting to hear.

Yet while all this economic uncertainty carries on, there are huge plans by West Lothian Council to build a massive housing development in nearby Winchburgh, complete with roads, a station and schools. And there is the other massive housing development taking place at Kirkliston, again not too far from the Hall’s site.

You have to wonder where all these people are expected to work. Or perhaps it has just been accepted at a political level that these towns will now be commuter-villes, offering cheaper housing to those who can’t afford to live in Edinburgh any longer, but who still have to work at the Gyle or Edinburgh Park.

It makes you wonder if places like Broxburn – and perhaps similar towns in Mid and East Lothian – have been best served by the move to unitary authorities. I’d like to think that if Lothian Regional Council was still running, there would be a much broader view on the spread of housing and jobs across the region as a whole.

But even if that is to be the fate of Broxburn, then the people who live there will need services and shops. Perhaps West Lothian Council could look at giving some money to the businesses along Main Street to improve their properties and their signage in an attempt to encourage shoppers away from Livingston and its Centre shopping mall.

The Broxburn and Uphall Traders Association does its best, but even it is still a fledgling organisation at just four years old. It’s not equipped to deal with a full-scale economic crisis.

However, there are apparently three parties now interested in bidding for the Hall’s plant. Let’s hope that one of them is viable – and will continue to employ large numbers of people. Otherwise Broxburn will find itself not just bypassed by the A89 and M8, but by the future.