Mark Casci: Don’t abandon the North East to rust from death of steel

ONE of the most frequently-uttered buzz terms from Whitehall is that of the Northern Powerhouse, a grand vision for a unified northern half of the country which combines high-skilled manufacturing and technology sectors so the region can become a worldwide force.

It’s a noble aspiration. Yet, on Teesside, the Northern Powerhouse must be set 
in the context of Middlesbrough and 
the surrounding area. For centuries, it set the template for innovation and excellence worldwide. A ship-building epicentre in the 15th century, the discovery of iron ore saw a booming iron manufacturing industry established in the region.

The need to move coal from the ports to the factories saw the region gave the world its first railway in 1822 with George Stephenson’s Stockton to Darlington Railway. Eventually iron-making gave way to steel and for just under century the vast and imposing area near Redcar produced thousands of tonnes of steel that formed the skeleton of some of the world’s most-celebrated structures.

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From the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the new World Trade Centre One site in New York City, thousands of landmarks were forged on Teesside.

But as well as giving the world these buildings and vistas, it also provided an umbrella of commerce and employment for the region. In its prime, the steel plant employed more than 40,000 people and to this day, at Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium, banners are displayed proclaiming “We built the world”.

I know this better than many. I spent the first 18 years of my life living there. The steel works and nearby chemical industries were everything to my hometown. At school, your father either worked at ICI or British Steel.

These were industries that did more than provide employment. The annual Steel Gala was a focal point for the whole town. It was the sun and Redcar and its neighbouring towns were the planets. Without it, we would die.

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ICI sold off much of its Teesside-based concerns over the course of the 1990s and British Steel eventually sold itself to Corus before various companies jockeyed for secured ownership, ending up in the hands of Thai company SSI in 2011.

A combination of bad management, supply chain issues and a massive surplus of steel from China has made for difficult conditions in recent times and this week SSI announced it was to mothball the site entirely, bringing to an inglorious end generations of steel-making on Teesside.

Estimates at the weekend suggested SSI accounted for the jobs of around 6,000 people in Redcar, either directly or via knock-on industries.

The town is one of the more economically-deprived in the North, with higher-than-average unemployment. It has six food banks in a place home to just 35,000 people. Without the steel industry, still a profitable business, the region loses jobs. Far more importantly, it also loses its sense of identity and soul.

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With all this in mind, let me pose a question; would Angela Merkel or Barack Obama stand idly by while a crucial and vibrant industry crumbled into dust?

If we are serious about revitalising and enhancing the North’s economy, then why are Ministers not falling over themselves to provide assistance?

Teesside is no stereotypical north-eastern backwater that would elect a frog wearing a red rosette. The 2010 election saw the Lib Dems sweep the seat with an unprecedented swing (it returned to Labour in May this year). James Wharton, a Conservative and the Northern Powerhouse minister, is the MP for Stockton South.

When the banks hit the wall due to bad luck and bad management in 2008, we were told they must be bailed out as they were “too big to fail”. If ever there was a localised exemplar of ‘too big to fail’, it is Teesside’s steel industry.

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As a nation, we are going to need tens of thousands of new homes in the coming decades if we are going to give our children somewhere to live. Alongside this, we will need new schools, hospitals, churches, shopping centres and car parks. We are pressing ahead with the most ambitious rail programme in generations with HS2. We are going to need steel, and lots of it.

The neo-liberal philosophy of allowing imperilled industries to falter in the name of the greater good belongs in the 1980s. Capitalism has moved on, and so have we as citizens. We have so much at stake in terms of the impact on the lives of men, women and children who just want to continue in the proud footsteps of their mothers, fathers and grandparents.

Redcar has struggled for years. A lot of the people I grew up with have either left the town entirely or commute long-distances to work elsewhere.

But this latest body-blow has the potential to be catastrophic for the region, in the same mould as the closures of the pits in 1980s.

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It cannot be left to fall to rack and ruin and the case for Government intervention is unequivocal. The Northern Powerhouse cannot just be a slogan or soundbite if it is to have any credibility. It has to be backed up by action.

Mark Casci is The Yorkshire Post’s head of content.