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Redcar Steelworks and Blast Furnace

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This is not a news or political blog but I can’t ignore recent events in Redcar, which will effect the entire Teesside area, its prosperity and prospects and so our people and communities, for generations to come.

The recent shutting down of the blast furnace and coke ovens and the loss of the business and employment provided by the works at Redcar is a regional disaster, for the second time in a few years. No hypebole; disaster, catastrophe, are apposite words, no question. This blast furnace was shut down a few years ago. The technical problems and financial considerations associated with restarting a blast furnace meant that at that time no such furnace anywhere had ever been restarted. So when SSI decided to buy and restart the Redcar works it was a miracle. For all the same reasons as last time but also due to the way the furnace and coke ovens are being turned off this time, there will be no rising from the ashes.

This town has had an iron and steel industry for over 170 years. In fact, it was the discovery of iron ore locally, in near proximity to the Durham coal fields and the deep water river Tees, that gave rise to the town. Teesside iron was used to build the world’s first passenger railway, Stockton to Darlington. Our steel was famously used in landmark structures; Sydney Harbour Bridge, Tyne Bridge, Humber Bridge, Dartford Crossing, Bosphorus Bridge, Honk Kong’s Tsing Ma Bridge and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank’s Chinese Lantern head office and many other equally important projects but also numerous less glamorous things; ships, railway rails and tower block frames all over the planet. Teesside steel has been recognised as top quality for generations. However, the recent decline in world slab prices, a huge drop in demand from China, the most important market for steel in recent years, and other matters beyond the control of the men and women who worked in Redcar have crippled the business’s finances.

This plant and associated mills are now becoming historic monuments and that is a tragedy for this area, which has never had great wealth but now has a very bleak future, loosing thousands of jobs and others will suffer brutal cuts to already modest standards of living. With no other major employers of any kind locally, the net results include house prices falling, with people trapped unable to pay their mortgages but also many will have negative equity, unable to sell in a market where no one is moving into the region. So families will also be unable to afford to move to more prosperous areas where work might be found.

On a personal note; the Redcar works, and blast furnace, were being built in 1976 when I completed my art foundation course. So, before going to Bournemouth & Poole to study photography, I worked on the site as an industrial painter for the 11 weeks of summer to earn the money to buy myself a high-end camera. The first week of my employment was the only week during my time when there were no fatalities amongst the workforce on the site. To me, the blast furnace has always been a memorial to all the men lost during the much longer period of the build out.

Another personal memory; Ten years later I was the official photographer the first time they tapped the salamander. An evocative descriptor for a stunning primeval event. All the more so for being done over night on Easter Sunday. There were men in silver suits with full visors using long thermic lances, making like industrial strength fireworks, to burn a hole through the very bottom of the furnace. The rest of us were in heavy red “lava proof” boiler-suits. Red and orange liquid steel exploded out of the hole as the lance penetrated the furnace and it gushed down the channel, sparks shooting off the top of it as it poured along from hell and over the edge of darkness down to the first of the two 350 tonnes torpedoes standing on the rails below and all the time radiating overwhelming heat, and all in the darkness. The air was red with metallic dust reflecting the glow of the streaming metal. At the end of the night 700 tonnes had been emptied from the bottom of the blast furnace for the very first time. We were all tired and hot and my kit was slippery to touch, the air-borne microscopic metal particles had covered it, forming a invisible, dry lubricating, surface coating. Sparks from the thermic lance, used to burn the hole in the bottom of the furnace had melted a couple of holes in the front glass element of my Hasselblad’s 50mm wide angle lens, fortunately not my face or hands. A great shoot, now never to be repeated here in Teesside.

Practically nobody in Teesside will be unaffected by the demise of the steel works. Families will split as couples fall apart, or men just leave homes they can’t afford to sell, to work in other places, leaving their wives and kids behind. The next generation will be either blighted by the reduced opportunities or they will leave their families and communities with the knock on effect of ageing and declining communities where folk have reduced family support in years to come and bonds between some family members will be weakened. The local shops, and other businesses, will suffer reduced sales and profits will plummet and so the contagion spreads and the area becomes depressed and so too will many of the good people who live and want to work here.

Then there is the question of the £80 million government support. This is looking more and more like a political exploitation of the area. Some of the money is for statutory redundancy payments, so a typical government double accounting, to seem more compassionate and supportive than they really are but now rumour has it the support will only be provided to ex-steelworkers who actually live in Redcar. There are significant numbers who live all across the area in; Middlesbrough, Grangetown, Thornaby, Stockton, North Yorkshire villages and many other communities. Apparently, these people will not get the same support as those in Redcar yet they face the exact same challenges. We live in an age of the motor car and so people no longer all live within the shadow of their places of employment. If this geographical differentiation takes place it will be easier for the government to score more political points by claiming great success as a high proportion of the Redcar people will be helped, whilst a much lower proportion of the entire workforce will in fact have been helped to retrain or find alternative work. Many will be forced into self-employment and these jobs rarely pay very well and this will especially be the case in a community blighted by the loss of its major employer, where the average family income is reduced substantially. And politicians wonder why we are sceptical of their honesty, integrity, understanding and compassion.

I publish my blast furnace photographs in support of all those effected by these recent events. I wish all of them well.

I am a creative Photographer and Filmmaker. I also work as a Lighting Cameraman & Director of Photography, in television, film and digital media.