July 26, 2022
When Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI UK) rescued the former Redcar Corus plant in 2011, it wasn’t just the fires of its famous blast furnace that were rekindled.
The deal too reignited the Teesside employment landscape, and promised a similarly catalytic impact across its economy.
And when the Thai-based firm subsequently smashed a succession of production records, making millions of tonnes of steel slab for customers across Europe, the US and Thailand, it looked like a new industrial aeon beckoned.
However, the business never made a profit, and when financial support could no longer provide a sticking plaster to slumping industry prices and steel dumping, a dark shadow eclipsed its new dawn in late 2015, causing thousands of job losses.
Now, though, comes fresh hope.
The Teesworks scheme, led by Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, is razing the site, replacing rusting edifices with modern factories focused on low-carbon projects he says will deliver a new wave of employment for decades to come.
A number of companies have already committed to the venture, with others believed to be in discussions about investing in the sprawling site.
From steel to sustainability
The Redcar blast furnace has long stood as an icon of Teesside’s iron and steel industry. But soon it will be no more, as bulldozers converge to make space on the former SSI UK base for the Teesworks hub. Here, Steven Hugill tours the vast site to witness the transformation.
The traffic lights linger interminably on red.
The route beyond is clear, but the bright scarlet circle – accompanied by a siren’s tinny wail – remains resolute.
Like the bustling rail line that criss-crosses our path, but which now heads into wasteland speckled with pink valerian wildflower, we’re going nowhere.
The scene epitomises perfectly the Teesworks development around which we’re travelling.
When Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI UK) collapsed in October 2015, the sprawling works site – in the main – quickly fell idle, the stop sign erected on thousands of jobs and centuries of Teesside heritage.
However, as witnessed from our vantage point in a Teesworks-branded Land Rover Defender, the potential of the undulating ribbon of land – sandwiched between the River Tees and the Eston Hills, whose iron ore first fuelled the area’s global commercial standing – never waned.
But, as with our enforced wait, it remained frustratingly out of reach.
When the blast furnace fires dimmed, and discussions looked to the future, a major stumbling block quickly emerged.
A significant 870-acre parcel of land – key to any redevelopment – sat in the hands of three banks in SSI UK’s native Thailand.
Keen for a return on their deal, the lending houses dug their heels in.
What followed was a prolonged tug-of-war, with Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen – a talented rugby player in his youth – rucking with finance bosses to wrest the estate under the control of his South Tees Development Corporation.
After numerous false-starts, a deal was struck in 2020, and with other agreements – including the capture of 1420 acres from Tata Steel Europe – the corroding base, just up the way from the sandcastles and lemon tops of Redcar seafront, was given a new future.
Two years on, and where Teesside sweat and steel once spurred the Industrial Revolution, today, through Teesworks, the area stands at the vanguard of another seismic shift – the switch to a cleaner and more sustainable world.
And nowhere is the change better reflected than on the patch of land where the Dorman Long tower, the imposing coal store synonymous with the region’s steel and iron heyday, once climbed high into the sky.
Razed to the ground last year, the brutal, concrete edifice will soon be replaced by SeAH Wind’s £400 million wind turbine parts factory.
Excavators and rollers have remediated and flattened the land, with construction now underway on what bosses say will be the “world’s largest monopile plant for offshore wind turbines”.
Creating and supporting more than 2000 jobs, they say the plant – which will neighbour an existing Hanson cement works, will make up to 150 monopiles (large steel tubes that form turbine foundations) every year.
Elsewhere, waste-to-energy firm Circular Fuels is building a £150 million factory to convert non-recyclable household and industrial waste into clean burning fuel, and the partner-based Net Zero Teesside Power project, spearheaded by BP, is primed to deliver a gas-fired power station with carbon capture and storage prowess.
Down by the river, huge cranes, armed with thunderous piling hammers, are creating the South Bank Quay.
Backed by £107 million from the UK Infrastructure Bank’s first-ever investment, the dock will provide one kilometre of waterborne distribution capacity.
In another corner, up and over the passenger rail line that cuts through the industrial mass, a goliath of the steelworks site is slowly being brought to its knees.
Once a basic oxygen steel plant and so integral to the production process, the long, rectangular factory – based near British Steel’s ongoing Lackenby works – stands hollowed out, an army of demolition teams reducing its might, piece by individual piece.
On the other side of the vast expanse, passing in the process road signs filmed with dirt, and whose arrows have long become redundant, another behemoth stands at rest.
The blast furnace was once the steelwork’s totem, an eternal flame that represented not just Teesside industry but the area’s passion for its craft and impact on the world.
Now, though, the reddish brown superstructure is more the focal point in a huge garden of remembrance.
The roars of production have been replaced by gentle birdsong, and a chimney carrying SSI UK’s red and white logo provides a fitting headstone for a company that went up in smoke.
Close by, the innards of a coal injection plant, fitted less than a decade ago at a cost of £38 million to increase iron production, lie exposed.
At its installation, SSI UK’s then chief executive Phil Dryden likened it to the company moving from O-level iron and steelmaking to PhD manufacturing.
A matter of months later, though, and school was out for good, when SSI UK collapsed into liquidation, the asset never afforded a chance to showcase its true potential.
Nearby, piles of twisted metal stand ready for collection, sections of overhead conveyors stop and start where chunks have been chopped out, and square concrete footprints provide the only trace of stock houses and maintenance sheds.
Over at the Redcar Sinter Plant, which heated coke, fine metals and iron ore ‘fines’ to feed the blast furnace, a side section has been removed, revealing a skeleton of interlinking steel columns.
Huge funnels flop on the ground, their uniform circularity blasted away by the might of explosives, the force of which has also reduced a former bunker bay and screenhouse to rubble.
What remains harks back to the good times of yesteryear.
A painted sign, every bit mirroring Teesside lingo, champions the base’s ‘Total Quality’.
The self-regard is echoed at the Redcar Coke Ovens, which once burned coal to make coke for iron and steelmaking, and produced steam to generate power.
The ovens have cooled now, but the firesome pride remains, with large red letters, framed by a blue border and presented in a patina-like effect, proclaiming Redcar Coke as ‘The Quality Product’.
When SSI UK collapsed, and the curtain came down, the works’ creaking, rusting hulks quickly took on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic film set.
But with new protagonists writing a fresh script, and the stage undergoing serious transformation, the site will soon be overseeing a new industrial chapter.
And among it all, Teesside will have the chance to stand proud again.
Teesworks at a glance
• Set across a 4500-acre expanse, Teesworks is Europe’s largest brownfield site and focused on providing space for offshore wind, clean energy, advanced manufacturing and process sector operators
• The development is the UK’s biggest freeport, after being handed the trade title by former Chancellor – and current Richmondshire North Yorkshire MP – Rishi Sunak last year. The Government says freeports will allow businesses to benefit from tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures, streamlined planning processes and Westminster support to promote regeneration and innovation
• Companies that have already agreed deals to open plants on Teesworks include wind turbine monopile maker SeAH Wind, and waste-to-energy firm Circular Fuels. BP is also leading the partner-based Net Zero Teesside Power venture
• The site includes the £2.1 million Teesworks Skills Academy. Delivered alongside Darlington College, Hartlepool College of Further Education, Learning Curve Group, Middlesbrough College Group, NETA Training Group, Redcar & Cleveland College, Stockton Riverside College and Teesside University, officials say it has already worked with more than 4000 people and helped hundreds into work