Northern Metro Mayors – Tees Valley: A New Hope

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The North East of England has faced more than its fair share of economic hardship, and the Tees Valley region is no exception to this.

It felt the brunt of the industrial decline of the early 80s, was hit by the 2008 financial crisis, and when Sahaviriya Steel Industries UK (SSI) turned off the coke ovens at the Teesside Steelworks in 2015, many worried for the region’s future.

Could a metro mayor, and the extra money from central government, be the shot in the arm that the region needs?

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Tyne Bridge, and the Auckland Harbour Bridge were all built with Teeside steel.

Tees Valley

Tyne Bridge. Credit: Bryn Pinzgauer. Under license.

For decades, the steel industry was at the centre of the Tees economy, employing thousands of workers.

It was also the heart of the community, providing generation after generation with tough but honest work, and an identity as strong as steel itself.

But this came to an end in 2015, when SSI, the then owner of the Teeside Steelworks site, threw in the towel after being unable to find a buyer to take on the struggling site.

The coke ovens and blast furnaces that had fuelled the steelworks and the region for decades were to be extinguished, through a slow and painstaking process.

Over 3000 workers lost their jobs, and the steelworks that had employed 33,000 people at its peak in 1960 now employs a couple hundred, many of whom are there to manage the decommissioning of the old works.

Tom Blenkinsop was the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland from 2010 to 2017, a constituency that was directly affected by the decline of the steel industry.

Tees Valley

Tom Blenkinsop. Credit: Office of Tom Blenkinsop MP

He is now the ‘Project Manager for the Tees Valley combined authority area and Northern Powerhouse Region’ for the trade union Community, which represents the steelworkers at the plant.

Mr Blenkinsop argues that the government should have stepped in to keep the steelworks open, saying: “We were trying to get across at that time that even if you let it hit the wall, which the government did, it is still going to be a continuous cost to the state, in a sort of zombie site model.”

These costs include dealing with hazardous materials and the incredibly high temperatures that the blast furnaces still reach.

The site could not be cleaned-up cheaply, and as such, Mr Blenkinsop’s pitch to the mayor is: “So, you either have that massively expensive clean-up operation with no real benefit, long term, to the community, or you could use it for industry again.”

Part of this industry would include the use of existing assets to make a different variation of steel, recycled steel, which could employ up to 800 people on this site.

However, Mr Blenkinsop argues that this should be joined with new industries, such as manufacturing hydrogen batteries, adding; “We have the largest production of hydrogen in the UK, and we are well placed for the new hybrid transportation technology.”

Mr Blenkinsop is clear that this diversification is necessary, pointing to the diversification that has improved Newcastle’s economic standing.

He argues that this was easier for Newcastle because it was a city, rather than a collection of towns which have been based primarily on a single employer.

State intervention would be needed to diversify the Tees Valley economy, and this could be provided by the new metro mayor.

Centre for Cities, a think-tank created to understand and improve UK cities’ economic performance, shares Mr Blenkinsop’s support for diversification, but has a different area of the Tees Valley in mind.

They believe that Middlesbrough, the largest town in the Tees Valley region, should be given a boost so that it can compete with cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Credit: Jonathan Oakley. Under License

Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge. Credit: Jonathan Oakley. Under License.

Paul Swinney, Senior Economist at Centre for Cities, said: “The problem is that Middlesbrough city centre performs poorly compared to other British city centre economies.

“This is to the detriment to the wider Tees Valley economy, which has a share of jobs in knowledge based services that is below the national average and below average productivity too.”

Tees Valley

Paul Swinney. Credit: Future Spaces Foundation.

These knowledge-based jobs, Mr Swinney argues, are essential to diversifying the Middlesbrough economy and enriching the entire region.

He added: “A number of places have grappled with their industrial legacy, and few have been able to sufficiently deal with this.

“But those that have, such as London, Leeds and Manchester, have seen the focus of their economies shift from factories and dockyards to offices in their city centres.

“Their ability to reinvent their economies on an ongoing basis puts them in a strong position to continue to create jobs growth in new industries as older industries decline.”

This is the economic landscape that the newly elected mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, steps into.

Tees Valley

Ben Houchen. Credit: Ben Houchen.

Will he choose Mr Blenkinsop’s approach of revitalising and diversifying the industrial sites in the region?

Will he choose Mr Swinney’s approach, to make Middlesbrough the hub of the region and transition from factories to offices?

Or will he attempt to do both?

Unfortunately, mayor Houchen did not publish a formal manifesto, which makes it more difficult to pin down his priorities.

However, the Conservative mayor has recently launched his ‘regeneration masterplan’, with the backing of the Prime Minister.

Tees Valley

Ben Houchen, Theresa May MP, Jake Berry MP, and Greg Clark MP, in Teeside to launch the ‘masterplan’. Credit: Ben Houchen.

The plan leans towards Mr Blenkinsop’s vision of the future, aiming to revive the former steelworks plant and the surrounding area.

Responsibility for carrying out the plan falls to the South Tees Development Corporation, a ‘Mayoral Development Corporation’ set up using the new metro mayor powers.

The idea behind these corporations is that they are assigned an area of land in the city region, and some funding, and are tasked with improving the economic situation in that area.

Mr Houchen said: “This is an historic moment for the Tees Valley – nowhere else outside of London has a Mayoral Development Corporation.

Tees Valley

New ‘British Steel’ Logo.

British Steel has already made a commitment to the site and the world’s largest dedicated biomass energy plant, MGT Teesside, is being constructed.

“These projects, and many more in our inward investment pipeline, demonstrate the level of our ambition for the area and are tangible evidence of the economic benefits that devolution is already bringing to Tees Valley.”

The full ‘masterplan’ has yet to be unveiled, and we don’t know the mayor’s plans for the rest of the region, but there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the Tees Valley economy.

However, if this good news is not built upon, and the economy does not diversify beyond what has already been announced, then history could repeat itself.

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