Blast from the past: Ruth Sunderland next to the remains of the Redcar Steelworks furnace on Teesside
Since the collapse of heavy industry in the 1980s, hope has been a fragile commodity on Teesside. For me it is personal. Generations of men in my family have toiled in the steel furnaces, only to watch a once-proud industry wither and die.
The last structures of a once vast steel empire were razed to the ground this summer. Lord Heseltine, who led a task force to try to regenerate the area after Redcar closed in 2015, was the man who pushed the button. It only took 15 seconds to level the buildings in a thunderous explosion that ended 170 years of history of steel manufacturing.
The moment was bittersweet for me and many other Teessiders.
They were hard and dangerous jobs. But they paid well, and the camaraderie sustained the entire community.
A great heritage, the one on which we could boast of having built the world, has disappeared. But a phoenix, in the form of a new green energy powerhouse, may well rise from the ashes.
If successful, it would be a breakthrough not only for the local economy but for the country.
On an August day, standing by the remains of the kiln, I feel as though if I listened hard enough I could hear the voices of my father Alan and my grandfather on the wind. Its ghosts remain elusive, but bustling life and new workers will soon return.
Driving through a nearly deserted spot, Craig Peacock of the Tees Valley Combined Authority conjures up a vision of the future.
“There will be a train station, a bus service and a park with capacity for 1,500 people,” he says.
There have been dashed hopes in the past, but one reason for the optimism now is the commitment of big business, including FTSE 100 oil giant BP.
BP is one of a number of companies investing billions of pounds into the former 4,500-acre site, now known as Teesworks, which could create 20,000 new jobs as the UK’s epicenter of hydrogen, potentially the clean energy of the future.
The ambition is for Teesside to be at the forefront of the new green industrial revolution, just as it was in the original Victorian.
The former steel site, once an impregnable Labor stronghold, is smack dab in the middle of the Red Wall.
The political energy behind Teesworks comes from the 36-year-old Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, recently ennobled by Boris Johnson.
But the redevelopment has turned politically toxic and an investigation is underway into allegations of corruption.
Whatever the findings of the investigation, the hope is that the dispute does not derail plans to restore jobs in a place that has suffered more than its fair share of deprivation and disappointment.
As for BP, keep going. “We have carried out all the due diligence as expected,” says David Nicholas of the company. “We are committed to Teesside.”
BP leads three low carbon projects. Net Zero Teesside is a gas-fired power station with carbon capture technology, which could produce enough electricity to power up to 1.3 million homes.
Carbon capture and storage will take place in a saline aquifer called Endurance, 90 miles off the coast of Teesside in the North Sea.
H2Teesside will be one of the largest blue hydrogen installations in the UK. The hydrogen will be produced from natural gas with the aim of providing 10 percent of the government’s target by 2030. It could capture and store up to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to 2 million homes – which is they will send to Resistencia.
HyGreen Teesside will produce green hydrogen from water powered by renewable energy.
It could make Teesside the UK’s first major green transport hub with enough hydrogen to power the equivalent of 10,000 HGVs. H2Teesside and HyGreen Teesside have garnered significant endorsement from Abu Dhabi.
Customers are queuing up. Rob Portsmouth is an executive with the chemical company Venator, one of the local companies hoping to use hydrogen produced by BP.
Venator makes titanium dioxide, a white crystal used in products ranging from sunscreens to thermal protection for buildings.
According to him, switching to hydrogen could mean the equivalent of a city the size of nearby Northallerton becoming decarbonized overnight.
Bittersweet: Ruth’s father Alan, pictured in the 1980s working in the local steel industry.
“It’s really important to have Net Zero Teesside on our doorstep,” he says. “We hope that more hydrogen will be produced here.”
Louise Kingham, head of BP’s UK business, says the company will invest up to £18bn in Britain by the end of the decade, much of it in Teesside.
Thousands of skilled jobs will be created directly and in the supply chain, a boon for an area plagued by high unemployment and low education.
BP and other companies will need a flow of well-qualified staff and want to recruit locally.
At nearby Redcar and Cleveland College, Jason Faulkner, an ex-soldier turned teacher, is the inspiring headmaster.
“The disappearance of the steel mill meant the disappearance of this entire area,” he says. ‘We lost 75 percent of the number of students. They had to go to work to help their families.’
BP supports 21 students at the university, which has state-of-the-art industrial machinery that allows them to get used to a realistic work environment while gaining qualifications in renewable energy.
Part of the project honors the industrial past. Historian Tosh Warwick is part of the Teesworks heritage task force. He grew up in the area and his grandfather, like mine, worked for the powerful Dorman Long company, which supplied steel for the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
“I grew up in the shadow of the Dorman Long Tower,” he says, referring to an iconic Brutalist monument built in the 1950s to store coal. It was torn down in 2021.
‘Every time I went shopping with my mom you would see the steel mills and coke ovens. It subconsciously leaves an imprint on your psyche.
“I was very much against the fall of the Dorman Long tower. It was tragic. But that time is over and we need to look at how we can use the skills and passion that people have for the industry in new and cleaner ways, and ensure that future generations have something to do.
‘I don’t think we should keep everything from the past and we shouldn’t remember some rosy glory days because the reality was extreme poverty.
‘We are famous for building bridges. This is a new opportunity to connect people.”
Hopes have risen and fallen many times on Teesside and everyone wants to believe that this is different. I offer a silent prayer that we will witness an industry renaissance that would make our forefathers proud.
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