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Redcar Blast Furnace: Looking ahead as Teesworks is cleared for jobs

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Business Editor Mike Hughes takes a personal look back as the leveling of the steelworks site reaches its final stage

It can be difficult to get your head around the sheer scale of Teesworks – its potential, its past or its legacy.

The Northern Echo:

You could drive for miles along the internal roads past pipelines, sheds, vast swathes of empty space and the first signs of new foundations. The aim is that it will soon be full of new investors drawn by the prospect of spearheading a green energy revolution.

Exciting stuff. But there is a shadow blocking out part of the spotlight.

The acres of space include the former steelworks, now an abandoned memorial to what we used to have and where we thought our future lay.

Read more: Redcar Blast Furnace demolished

The furnace-like ferocity of the battle to save it and the jobs of hundreds of steelworkers galvanized the whole community of workers, politicians, unions and families and so many more whose connection was not through wage packets and careers but a deep instinct to protect their DNA and close the doors to any option other than survival.

So when the end of what had become SSI finally came – after relighting, raised hopes and turbulent markets – there was not only sadness but guilt as well. Some of the hardest-working people you could find, who would hit target after target and sweat until they were fit to drop had roared their defiance at any mention of defeat.

The Northern Echo:

But now they had been overwhelmed by circumstances they could never control and it hurt – and still does now.

The memorial they left behind was an empty, cold furnace. A beast so much more powerful than them that they had brought under control every day to do what they needed. So why not leave it there as a permanent memorial of the towering scale of the fight?

The Northern Echo: How the RBF looked just a few weeks ago when the dismantling had startedHow the RBF looked just a few weeks ago when the dismantling had started (Image: Newsquest)

Because the USP of Teesworks – our new center of industry, investment and innovation – is its scale and unless every possible corner of the site is open and available, there could be delays and potential tenants could glance away from Teesside for a precious moment to see what else is available.

It’s not just the furnace footprint that is involved. There would be a huge investment in making it all safe and it would still need a safe area around it – extending its unusable plot.

So the decision was at least made quickly – the furnace would have to come down and the memories would only remain indelibly etched on the minds of those people whose lives were changed by the price of a slab.

They won’t let the story stop, of course, and through them and the vast collection of images, 3D models and virtual reality that is still being assembled by the Tees Valley Combined Authority, our pride in the story of steel will continue for many generations.

The Northern Echo:

The argument about what should have stayed, what had to go and what has to be allowed to arrive will also continue across the generations – such is the passion this place invokes. For many, removing the last significant sign that steel was worked here is an insult, and investors should be told to respect the sacred ground they are building on.

But for others – the next generation taking ownership of our past – it needs to be saluted and remembered, but it has to make way for new jobs and revitalized futures.

The commitment of companies like bp is paramount here. Graeme Mallows from bp tells us: “As a native of the area I believe the demolition of the blast furnace – a symbol of Teesside’s proud industrial past – will usher in a new era for Teesside, as it builds on its growing reputation as a world leading region for low carbon industries.

“With some of the most ideal locations for safe CO2 storage anywhere in the world, and being home to many of the UK’s most carbon-intensive businesses, Teesside is ideally placed to host a world-first flexible power with Carbon Capture Project like Net Zero Teesside Power. It will be located not far from the old blast furnace and I’m hugely excited to see the positive impact it, alongside the wider East Coast Cluster and other new industries such as bp’s hydrogen projects, can deliver for the region and community .”

I was there when the furnace was relit and struggled to understand why grown men around me wept and hugged. But when you are immersed in the industry you never forget that visceral feeling and the sense that this made the Redcar site indestructible.

I’m only a business writer – I literally Echo what is going on and try to add insight and a little opinion. I’m sad the RBF has been felled because I talked to steel workers and their bosses and was told so many times with a table-thumping passion what it means to Teesside… but I’m excited by the future because I want to talk to the new workers and the new bosses about sectors that are still being developed.

We were defined by steel, then we were defined by losing it and now we are going to be redefined as a global center for innovation, clean energy, hope and resilience.

What a place this is.

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