This weekend has pretty much seen the end of steel production on Teesside, with the news that the the Teesside Cast Products Redcar steelworks’ blast furnace is to be mothballed.
Mothballing is pretty much a death knell for a blast furnace, as they’re pretty difficult to start up gain once they’re taken off-line.
I have a personal connection as my Dad worked at Redcar – owned by British Steel, then as joint-venture privatised Corus, subsequently purchased by Tata – for nigh on 30 years. Before that, his father worked for Dorman Long.
Across the bay from Redcar is Hartlepool, my home town, and on a clear day the blast furnace makes for a stunning vista – steam billowing from the furnace.
Ridley Scott also thought so, he recalled the flashes of flame from burn-off and visual glow of industry of the steelworks when working on the visuals for Blade Runner, which is my favourite film as it goes.
At night the blast furnace looks faintly hellish – a pulsing red eye in the sky – but to me it was always the place where my Dad worked. And to many others in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton, Billingham and Redcar.
Seeing the steelworks appear on the horizon always makes me feel like I’m home when approaching Teesside, along with the other industrial architecture of the region: the power station, the Transporter and ICI.
And sorting through some washing today, I looked a little harder at the British Steel towel that I still use in the kitchen.
Steel has flowed out of the north-east’s ports for 150 years, including to make the Sydney Harbour bridge.
But over the years the region’s heavy industry has taken a battering. No longer is the Tees a steel river, and all the traditional industries of the north-east have suffered.
Shipbuilding, coal and now steel. The area has been brought to its knees over the years, with only call centres to replace them. For every direct job lost at Redcar, three or four will be lost in the supply chain.
While Redcar seemed to hover on the verge of closure for many years, this latest development seems like the real deal.
The blow is particularly unfair given that a consortium had agreed to buy steel from the plant for ten years, only to pull out with no apology, apparently unfettered by an agreements, contracts or obligations.
Unions don’t believe Corus is taking the issue of the plant’s mothballing seriously, and is ignoring bids from potential buyers. The government insists it is powerless to act, though steel workers may look askance at the government’s support of the car industry.
In return, car industry bods may be looking with interest at the Corus situation, to see how parent company Tata deals with the fallout. Tata bought Jaguar Land Rover from Ford two years ago amid fears that the company would asset strip the UK factories and shift production back to India. What happens on Teesside may be instructive.
The UK’s remaining steel workers across the country are contemplating strike action, but I can’t see a way out.
Successive Conservative and Labour governments have undermined manufacturing and heavy industry to such an extent that the end seems inevitable, and the market-first orthodoxy has left governments powerless as foreign companies snap up and grind down successive UK companies.
Just time then for one last stand against the wholesale destruction of skilled UK industry. A final throwback to a bygone age: like the brass bands, like community spirit, like a British Steel towel on a washing line, fluttering in the wind.