At the start of October, people in the Tees Valley marked the fifth anniversary of one of the most painful events in recent local history – the closure of the SSI Steelworks in Redcar.
The liquidation of SSI was a devastating blow, with job losses and the economic impact ripping the heart out of communities as 13,00 direct and indirect jobs were lost overnight.
Teesside steel built the world – from London’s Shard to the Sydney Harbour Bridge – but with this one incident, the proud industry was massively damaged.
When I was elected in May 2017, I was determined to not let this heartache and anguish be the lasting memory for people in Redcar and across Teesside. Thanks to our devolution deal with Government, by virtue of having an elected Mayor, the first Development Corporation outside of Greater London could be established in the Tees Valley with local powers helping us to bring the site back into local ownership once again.
It was a long 18 months of discussions with landowners and the three Thai banks that had an interest in the SSI land and assets, but earlier this year we finally struck a deal. With the land back in our control, we are now rapidly moving forward with our vision for the newly named Teesworks site, the UK’s largest industrial zone.
We are in a unique position to be able to redevelop the 4,500-acre area, attracting international businesses and making it a hotbed for clean energy, offshore wind and advanced manufacturing.
To kick things off, we have launched a £393m, 12-month plan of demolition and remediation which will prepare the land for global investors and create 775 jobs for local people using local contractors.
Now, we have more than 557 workers back on the Teesworks site, from former steelworkers delighted to be back home earning good money again for their families, to young apprentices starting out on their road to a long and successful career. It was clear they were thrilled to be working on the site and there was a real sense of optimism for the future. This is to say nothing of the thousands that will be created down the line from projects based on the site in the years to come.
That’s why to mark this new dawn, and the fifth anniversary of SSI’s liquidation, I celebrated in an unusual way – by demolishing the site’s former Gatehouse, paving the way for a brand-new, state-of-the-art entrance that will wow local people and international investors.
The construction sector was one of the most vital to boost, creating immediate jobs as we faced another catastrophic challenge in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.
And, like the opportunities being created at Teesworks, having a directly elected mayor has given us the powers we need to be both reactive to the sectors that need our help the most and proactive in planning for the future to protect our vital businesses and people’s livelihoods – with plenty more interventions to come.
One of the most heavily impacted sectors has been hospitality, which is why we put together a package of support for pubs, restaurants, hotels and other public-facing businesses to help them reopen in a safe and secure manner.
This was then expanded to become a £1.25m Back to Business fund, offering assistance for our vital small and medium-sized businesses in all sectors so they could get direct professional support, advice and guidance to aid their recovery and growth. Both schemes have helped more than 600 businesses to date.
A £1m emergency apprenticeship fund has hit its target, creating 100 good quality apprenticeships for our young people to make sure they weren’t left behind.
We have also supported Government schemes, becoming a gateway body for firms trying to access the £2bn Kickstart scheme. It’s helped businesses create 415 local job placements for people on Universal Credit and we still have the opportunity to create hundreds more.
Most recently, a new £350,000 fund to help the cultural and creative industries innovate and adapt in the face of the pandemic has seen around 50 expressions of interest in just 48 hours.
As with the SSI closure in 2015, the coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly been a difficult and unprecedented time for many local people.
But something monumental is now underway on land at that site, and we can continue to help recover the wider Tees Valley too. In these times we need to look forward to the good things coming our way and focus on the positives so I’m doing all I can to get our region building for the future.
Ben Houchen is Mayor of Tees Valley