According to ONS figures out this month, in 2018 the highest annual growth rate seen in the 179 local areas of the UK was 10.5%, in Falkirk, the lowest level was in Mid and East Antrim at -10.1%, a 20% swing. So what has gone well in Falkirk?
On the face of it, Mid and East Antrim town, Ballymena, is not dissimilar to Falkirk. However, in 2018 people in Falkirk increased GDP from £29,869 to £33,868, whereas in Ballymena there was a c£5K drop to £29,885. Both areas are close to the capital cities of devolved administrations, where Belfast had GDP per head of £44,332 in 2018 and Edinburgh had £51,224.
Ballymena has a central location in Northern Ireland and is connected to the M2 motorway. It has a station on the Belfast/Londonderry railway line and Belfast International Airport is only 18 miles away and Belfast City Airport is also accessible. The area is also close to the ports of Larne and Belfast, 20 and 27 miles away respectively.
Falkirk also occupies a central location in Scotland, with direct access to the north-south (M9) and east-west (M876) motorway networks. Falkirk High is on the main Glasgow-Edinburgh line, with four trains an hour to either city. Falkirk Grahamston is on the Edinburgh to Dunblane Line which has frequent connections to Edinburgh. The town also has a direct rail service to London.
Additionally Falkirk has bus services to Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow and sits on the junction of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals. Glasgow and Edinburgh airports can be reached within an hour.
So both Ballymena and Falkirk have good rail and motorway links to major cities, both are close to international airports and Grangemouth and Larne are both active ports. Why the difference?
Whereas the economy of Falkirk has tilted towards retail and services in recent years, away from the heavy industries and manufacturing sectors of the pre 1980s, Ballymena has not restructured so successfully.
In April 2018, Ballymena saw production at the town’s Michelin’s tyre factory end after 50 years. The 840 headcount fell over a two year period at the site after the company announced in November 2015 that it was closing the factory. Then, at the end of 2017, the JTI Gallaher cigarette factory closed with the loss of another c800 jobs.
In September last year, the Ballymena-based bus manufacturer Wrightbus was placed into administration and put up for sale, with c1,200 staff losing their jobs. Since then the facility has completed its first delivery of new buses following the company’s acquisition in October by new owners Bamford Bus Company.
If Ballymena has been too dependent on manufacturing, then what has Falkirk got right?
A major catalyst for change was a millennium project, the £17.5m Falkirk Wheel, which re-connected the cross country Forth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal from Edinburgh. The wheel, which is a rotating boat lift, was opened in 2002, and attracts c500,000 visitors a year (more than 7m since it opened.)
Also in Falkirk, the Kelpies, 30-metre-high horse-head sculptures depicting kelpies (water spirits) are seen by c560,000 people a year. The £5m horse sculpture was commissioned as part of the £43m Helix regeneration project, a partnership between Falkirk Council and British Waterways which received a £25m grant from the Big Lottery fund. Tourism now generates £110m+ for the local economy and employs nearly 2,000 workers in the area.
As well as flagship regeneration projects, Falkirk has also been successful in attracting investment from businesses of all sizes to the area. Glasgow University spin out, scanning technology company Lynkeos, established its headquarters in Falkirk and Ian MacLeod Distillers is hoping to reopen the Rosebank Distillery in 2020. Despite its recent takeover by a Canadian firm, Alexander Dennis, one of the world’s largest bus manufacturers, is headquartered in Falkirk with a factory nearby.
The Falkirk area is also set to benefit from the £1bn worth of investment earmarked for the UK by chemical giant Ineos. In February 2019, the firm said part of this investment includes building a £350m new steam and power energy plant at Grangemouth. Grangemouth benefited from earlier investment from Ineos in 2016, when the firm chose the port to transit US shale gas (used to create plastic pellets for general manufacturing.)
Good fortune or well planned, well executed economic development? Falkirk Council and Scottish Enterprise are likely to argue the latter but it’s probably a bit of both. Who takes the plaudits is a moot point, but according to the ONS’s growth figures, there is credit due