Almost 30 years ago to the day, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher made her infamous “Walk in the Wilderness” at the site of the former Head Wrightson works in Thornaby. Yesterday, just down the road at the former SSI steelworks site in my constituency, Theresa May made her own walk to see the devastation wrought by the Tories on our steel industry. I wonder what she thought of the crumbling coke ovens and the rusting blast furnace they abandoned nearly two years ago. The visible symbol of their failure to act to save Teesside steel, when they seemed more than willing to act in Wales to save Port Talbot.
The prime minister visited to formally launch the South Tees Development Corporation – the regeneration body tasked with repairing the damage. It includes the leaders of the local Labour councils, the Conservative Tees Valley mayor, and businesses in the region. They have a huge job with a potential clean-up bill running over £1bn and question marks surrounding who will pick the tab. A masterplan is in the pipeline and the site has attracted a lot of potential investors in industries ranging from energy generation to industrial materials processing. However, whilst plans and ambitions for the site are good, it seems it will be many years before new jobs actually start to appear.
When the steelworks closed, 3,000 people lost their jobs and many more in the supply chain. Ex-steelworkers are still coming to my advice surgeries or visiting the local citizens’ advice bureau in desperation; having problems with low pay, personal debt and mortgages arrears. People are still struggling to find decent work and make ends meet with many taking huge pay cuts or insecure contracts. Some decided to go self-employed – supported by startup loans and grants from the local SSI taskforce – but not everyone has found success and are now struggling. The closure of the SSI emergency fund in May has severed a vital lifeline. The immediate need for support is very real. A glossy brochure and a photo op with the PM won’t bring any comfort to these families. I invite Theresa to visit Redcar high street and meet the real people whose lives are directly affected by whether this regeneration succeeds or fails.
Two years on from the closure, we haven’t seen a single job created at the site to replace the many thousands we have lost. The only thing the government has managed to create is a £58,000 job down in London for Sir Humphrey; far removed from the experiences of our community. What’s more, there has been no discussion or consultation with local people about what they would like to see developed there.
The site on the banks of the River Tees is a world class industrial asset which could see a new industrial renaissance on Teesside. But this government need to pull out all of the stops to get this work moving, to commit the significant resources needed to fund it, and above all to make sure Teessiders benefit from all of the jobs created at the site. Teessiders should be able to apply for every single job created there, particularly during the construction, and Teesside businesses should be the ones feeling the benefit. One of the biggest worries is that this land will be left vacant for years and the appetite for government involvement lost.
From the local SSI taskforce supporting the workforce in the aftermath of the closure, to the local political and business leaders of the Tees Valley combined authority, we have proven on Teesside that we can drive things for ourselves. We have a wealth of skills, talent, ambition and entrepreneurship to build prosperity and create jobs right across our area. But it is going to need central government resources to back it up, not just occasional visits for a photo opportunity. I will always work constructively across political lines if it delivers for our area but when Conservative ministers and the Tees Valley mayor are not delivering I will hold their feet to the fire. My constituents expect nothing less.
Yesterday’s launch was more about playing national politics on Teesside rather than working with local people to secure the future of our jobs and livelihoods. Come on Theresa, you have a chance to show you’re not Margaret Thatcher and to genuinely help Teesside turn our industrial fortunes around so we can once again be a worldwide industrial leader.
Anna Turley is MP for Redcar.