Redcar: how the end of steel left a tragic legacy in a proud town

Employment figures look good on paper – but most ex-steelworkers have taken big wage cuts, and home repossessions are rife

It was deja vu for Brian Dennis last week when British Steel went into administration, putting 5,000 jobs at risk and endangering 20,000 in the supply chain, after failing to secure emergency government funding.

Back in September 2015, Dennis had taken a day off from Redcar’s steel plant to attend the Labour party conference when his phone started buzzing. It was the news he had been dreading: after 26 years among the coke ovens and conveyor belts, he was out of a job. SSI, the plant’s Thai owners, were pulling the plug.

He asked for the microphone. “I left school at 16 to work in the shipyards and when the government shut them down I moved into the steel industry,” he told delegates.

“The government must step in and act to protect us, our families and our community. All of us steelworkers on Teesside are facing the end of our industry and a very bleak future. Only the government can save us now.”

Former steelworker Brian Dennis on the beach with his cocker spaniel Darcy.
Former steelworker Brian Dennis on the beach with his cocker spaniel Darcy. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

His plea roused the conference hall to its feet but fell on deaf ears in Westminster. The government blamed EU rules on state aid for preventing it bailing out SSI and two weeks later the receiver announced there was no realistic prospect of finding a buyer.

The blast furnace was turned off and the coke ovens were extinguished, left to cool down from 1,100C in the salty North Sea breeze. Two thousand direct jobs went and, with them, 170 years of steelmaking on Teesside.

Three and a half years on, Dennis, 53, is no longer a steelworker. He received money to retrain from the £50m fund set up by government to help Redcar’s steelworkers start new lives but packed in his health and safety course after six months.

“My wife kept sending me job adverts and eventually I got the hint,” he said this week, walking his dog on Redcar beach, the hulking steelworks rusting on the skyline.

“There seemed to be a desperate rush to find work, any work,” he remembered. He saw job ads online for £25,000 positions that would disappear and then come back three days later with a salary of £20,000.

“Just because you’ve got a thousand people sending you a CV who are hardworking men, should you really be doing that? I think morally it’s wrong. It was like a race for the work and I think the employers were trying to make it a race to the bottom, to get what they could as cheap as they could.”

He applied for 50 jobs to no avail. Eventually he begged the jobcentre for feedback on his CV. They told him to take off the fact he was a union rep and a Labour councillor – both proud achievements – and he got the next job he applied for. Now he works as a supervisor for Calor Gas, overseeing refills of propane gas canisters. He earns £31,000 – when he left the steelworks he was on £46,000.

It is not a subsistence wage, he acknowledges: “But it’s a big drop and the £15,000 comes out of what I call your leisure money – it’s your holiday money, your nice things.

“You’ve still got to pay your bills, your gas, your electricity, the car … we’ve cut back on holidays, eating out. I can’t remember the last time we went to the cinema. We used to have a date night once a week at the cinema, go for weekends away, but all that has stopped.”

Redcar’s Regent Cinema is closed, ostensibly because of structural defects. However, the loss of high-paying SSI jobs and the reduced spending in the local economy had a detrimental impact on many businesses. Empty shops abound, with pound shops, pawn shops and charity shops dominating the high street.

Map showing Redcar and Scunthorpe

Employment figures for Redcar and Cleveland look positive on paper. Of the 2,185 SSI and supply chain workers who made an application for benefits, 2,167 have ended that claim and nearly 2,000 new jobs have been created through the SSI Fund overall, according to the latest figures.

However, most former steelworkers have taken big wage cuts. More than 300 former SSI and supply chain workers started their own businesses, helped by a startup support fund. Much of the work was not lucrative, with the steelworkers struggling to transfer their often very niche skills into life outside steel.

Five became chimney sweeps; three turned dog walkers, according to the SSI Task Force Legacy Report. Twenty-six went into gardening. One was Steven Lince, 32, who was profiled as a success story in the report. But a year on, he has thrown in the towel, one of the 10% of SSI startups to fail.

With a young family to look after and slow business in the winter months, it became unsustainable. He now works as a production operator at a pipe mill just over the river in Hartlepool, earning £22,000 – the same as he earned at 18, and £8,000 less than he was on at SSI.

Insecurity is a huge problem. “There never seems to be a job which is totally secure,” Lince said. “I’m on temporary contracts at the minute, so I’m still in a situation where two months down the line I could get laid off again.”

This precariousness, coupled with low wages, has caused some former steelworkers to lose their homes. House prices in Redcar have still not recovered from their 2007 peak and workers found themselves in negative equity. In February, one three-bed semi with a garden sold for £80,000 – £7,000 less than it changed hands for in 2004.

Redcar's Regent cinema is shut.
Redcar’s Regent Cinema is shut, ostensibly because of structural defects, but the loss of high-paying SSI jobs has affected the local economy. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It wasn’t until about two years after SSI closed that houses began to be repossessed, said Carla Keegans, who runs Redcar’s Ethical Lettings Agency.

She lets to people “the council won’t help”, buying up properties to rent at affordable rates. Those who have lost their homes tend to have terrible credit ratings and often county court judgments against them, making it impossible to rent privately, Keegans said. When they ask her for help, they are “absolutely mortified”, she said.

Divorce has often followed, leaving estranged couples searching for two properties on vastly reduced means: “What we have seen is we have got people who have let their homes go, their homes have been repossessed, and the stress of it leads to relationship breakdown. What comes with that is domestic violence, mental health problems and alcohol abuse,” Keegans said.

At least two former SSI workers have killed themselves since the plant shut, said Anna Turley, Redcar’s Labour MP. Andrew Hodgson, a dad of two, was found dead on 8 November 2015, less than a month after the last steel was forged on Teesside. Stress and marriage difficulties were cited in the inquest, and “the closure of SSI was on his mind also”.

Veronica Harnett, the chief executive of Redcar & Cleveland Mind, a mental health charity, said many people still struggle. “It’s a grieving process. Some will have been there for 30-odd years.”

Sue Jeffrey, who had been the Labour leader of Redcar and Cleveland council for only five months when SSI collapsed, said social isolation has been a huge problem.

“The steelworks is a community. It’s not just one generation who worked there, it’s two or three, sometimes four generations,” she said.

“Therefore, when you go to work you are not just going to meet colleagues … you are actually going to work with people who are your family, probably live in the same community as you, have the same interests as you, go to the football match with you … you lose not only your sense of identity in terms of your work experience but also your social identity.”

Initially, Mind helped people with sleep problems: they could not adjust to “normal” bedtimes after a lifetime of shiftwork. Later, as part of the SSI Taskforce, it ran one-to-one sessions, resilience groups and workplace wellbeing programmes.

“We’re quite a high area for suicides and men are one of our highest risks groups, so that’s something we need to be really vigilant about again,” Harnett said. “It’s devastating to lose your job once never mind twice.”

Though Scunthorpe – where 4,000 people work on British Steel’s 800-hectare site – has hogged the national headlines this week, there are two British steel sites in Redcar and Cleveland, which took on a number of ex SSI workers.

The Lackenby beam mill, on the old SSI site, is the UK’s only producer of huge structural steel sections suitable for high-rise buildings. London’s skyline, from the Shard to the Olympic Stadium, started life there.

Veronica Harnett, the CEO of Redcar & Cleveland Mind.
Veronica Harnett, the CEO of Redcar & Cleveland Mind. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Ten miles down the coast from Redcar in the village of Carlin How is the Skinningrove “special profiles” plant, which makes sections, such as track shoes, used in earth movers and other industrial equipment.

The village was built for steelworkers and many gardens still back on to the plant. On Friday night there was a public meeting where locals begged local politicians to push for the renationalisation of the steel industry. Linda White, whose husband was laid off at SSI after 36 years, organised it. “I don’t want other families to go through what we went through,” she said.

Once the steel industry was privatised in 1988, the stability of Carlin How disappeared, she said. “There’s that rollercoaster of emotions every time a new buyer comes along … that uncertainty in family life is terrible. We live in a deprived part of the country that has suffered so much from the austerity measures … the steelworks is right at the centre of our village.

“I have grown up listening to the clattering and the banging – people who visit ask how we cope with it but to us it’s a really good, positive noise because it means the works are vibrant.”

Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor for Tees Valley, has broken party ranks to criticise the government. A blistering quote he gave to the local Gazette newspaper took up the entire front page on Thursday: “Yet again the people of Teesside have been shafted by heartless private investors and a government unwilling to pull their finger out.”

Though it is a private investment firm, Greybull, which has left British Steel on the brink of collapse, most anger in Redcar is directed at Westminster. People cannot believe the government has refused Greybull a £50m loan, which the company says it needs to keep the steelworks going.

“If ministers can find £50m for a ferry contract with no ships, they can find the money to support this strategic British industry and thousands of jobs. They must act,” Turley said.

The British Steel plant at Skinningrove.
The British Steel plant at Skinningrove. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“As we know in Redcar, once its lost its gone for good, leaving behind huge costs for families, the local community, and extortionate clean-up costs.”

Big plans are afoot to turn the Redcar site into a “special economic area”, which the council estimates would bring in £340m of rates in the next 25 years.

But first the site must be expensively and painstakingly decontaminated and dismantled at a cost of more than £1bn. Who will pay is still unclear.

On Thursday Sue Jeffrey, was on her way to the plant to interview for a new chief executive of the South Tees Development Corporation, which oversees the site. She wants to ensure Redcar is not as vulnerable to foreign investors in the future. “How can we build the resilience into our economy so that we are not so dependent on these big foreign companies?”

She stood down earlier this month after Labour took a beating in the local elections, losing 12 seats to the Liberal Democrats and a string of independents. Dennis decided not to stand again – it was too hard to juggle with his new job and, anyway, he has lost patience with the Labour party.

On Thursday he voted for the Brexit party in the European elections: “I absolutely blame Europe; I absolutely blame our government for hiding behind EU state aid rules … I said to the MEPs, why aren’t you screaming from the rooftops, in the press every day saying there are 5,000 jobs on Teesside going to the wall because the government won’t help. So I absolutely voted for Brexit. I think we can forge our own way.”


Helen Pidd and Jessica Murray

The GuardianTramp

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