British Steel, Corus and Teesside – the humbling of a region

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.

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  • Chris Barker

    Yet another bitter example of the continual deconstruction of the remaining industries and individual worker skillset that made England what it was, before successive governments turned a blind eye to the desperate calls from those who built the very foundations of this once unique country.

  • Jon

    It is sad but at the end of the day it is supply and demand. If something can me made cheaper elsewhere for the same quality then production will move. The only way to retain such industries is to specialise but if that is not possible then they will close. Forumla one manufacturing is one example where we are the best and thus have held onto that industry.

    In some ways the British consumer is responsible because we buy cheaper goods that are manufactured away from our shores.

    Quality is often cited as an issue and that anything from China is bad and anything from the Uk is great. In reality there is the latest engineering in China and also the worst. Iphones, ipads and Mac’s are made and China and as I type on my 2007 model I can say there is no problem with quality or durability.

    The question is not can the industry be saved but can Teesside innovate and reinvent itself.

  • You might be interested in a BBC documentary about Corus which goes out on Wednesday 23 February – and nationwide on the BBC iPlayer over the next week.

    The Last Cast charts the lives of six former Corus steel workers – and has archive film of the steelworks.

    There’s a link here which has more information about the programme. You’ll also be able to watch the film on the iPlayer from this web link.

    Hope you find it interesting.