Since the collapse of heavy industry in the 1980s, hope has been a fragile commodity on Teesside. For me, it’s personal. Generations of men in my family have toiled in the steel furnaces, only to see a once proud industry wither and die.
The last structures of a formerly vast empire of steel were flattened this summer. Lord Heseltine, who led a taskforce to try to regenerate the area after the 2015 Redcar closure, was the man who pressed the button. It took just 15 seconds to raze the buildings in a thunderous explosion ending 170 years of steelmaking history.
The moment was bittersweet for me and many other Teessiders. These were tough, dangerous jobs. But they paid well and the camaraderie underpinned the whole community.
A great heritage – one where we could boast we built the world – has gone. But a phoenix, in the form of a new green energy powerhouse, may well rise from the ashes. If it succeeds, it would be a huge breakthrough not just for the local economy but for the country.
On an August day, standing next to the remains of the furnace, it feels as though if I listen hard enough I might hear the voices of my father Alan and my grandfather in the wind. Their ghosts remain elusive, but bustling life and new workers should soon return.
Driving round an almost deserted site, Craig Peacock of the Tees Valley Combined Authority conjures up a vision of the future.‘
There will be a train station, a bus service and a 1,500-space park and ride,’ he says. There have been dashed hopes in the past, but one reason for optimism now is the commitment of large companies, including bp, the FTSE 100 oil giant.
bp is one of the firms investing billions of pounds in the old 4,500-acre site, now known as Teesworks, which could create 20,000 new jobs as the UK epicentre of hydrogen – potentially the clean energy of the future.
The ambition is for Teesside to be at the forefront of the new green industrial revolution, just as it was for the original Victorian one.
Once an impregnable Labour stronghold, the old steel site is bang in the middle of the Red Wall. The political energy behind Teesworks comes from the 36-year-old Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, recently ennobled by Boris Johnson.
But the redevelopment has become politically toxic and an investigation into allegations of corruption is under way. Whatever the findings of the probe, the hope is that the row will not derail plans to restore jobs to a place that has suffered more than its fair share of deprivation and disappointment.
As for bp, it is ploughing on. ‘We have undertaken all the due diligence as you would expect,’ says the company’s David Nicholas. ‘We are committed to Teesside.’
bp is leading three low-carbon projects. Net Zero Teesside is a gas-fired power station with carbon capture technology, which could produce enough electricity to power up to 1.3 million homes. The carbon capture and storage will happen in a saline aquifer called Endurance, 90 miles off the coast of Teesside in the North Sea.
HyGreen Teesside will produce green hydrogen from water powered by renewable energy. It could turn Teesside into the UK’s first major green transport hub with enough hydrogen to power the equivalent of 10,000 heavy goods vehicles. H2Teesside and HyGreen Teesside have pulled in major backing from Abu Dhabi.
H2Teesside will be one of the UK’s largest blue hydrogen facilities. The hydrogen will be produced from natural gas with the aim of providing 10% of the Government’s target by 2030. It could capture and store up to 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to 2 million households – which will be sent to Endurance.
Customers are being lined up. Rob Portsmouth is an executive at chemicals firm Venator, one of the local firms hoping to use hydrogen produced by bp. Venator makes titanium dioxide, a white crystal used in products from sunscreen to heat protection for buildings.
Switching to hydrogen could, he says, mean the equivalent of a town the size of nearby Northallerton decarbonising overnight. ‘It is really important to have Net Zero Teesside on our doorstep,’ he says. ‘We hope there will be more hydrogen production here.’
Louise Kingham, head of bp’s UK business, says the company will be investing up to £18 billion in Britain by the end of the decade, a large chunk of it on Teesside.
Thousands of skilled jobs will be created directly as well as in the supply chain – a boon for an area blighted by high unemployment and low educational attainment.
bp and other businesses will need a flow of well-qualified recruits and they want to hire locally. At nearby Redcar and Cleveland College, Jason Faulkner, a former soldier turned teacher, is the inspirational principal.
‘The demise of the steelworks was the demise of this whole area,’ he says. ‘We lost 75% of student numbers. They had to go to work to help their families.’
bp is supporting 21 students at the college, which boasts state-of-the-art industrial machinery allowing them to get used to a realistic working environment as they achieve qualifications in renewable energy.
Part of the project honours the industrial past. Historian Tosh Warwick is part of the Teesworks Heritage Task Force. He was brought up locally and his grandfather, like mine, worked for the mighty firm of Dorman Long, which supplied steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
‘I grew up in the shadow of the Dorman Long tower,’ he says, referring to a brutalist iconic landmark built in the 1950s to store coal. It was torn down in 2021. ‘Every time I went shopping with my Mam you would see the steelworks and the coke ovens. Subconsciously, it leaves an imprint on your psyche.
‘I was very much against the Dorman Long tower coming down. It was tragic. But that moment has passed and we need to look at how we can use the skills and the passion people have for industry in new, cleaner ways, and ensure future generations have something to go into.
‘I don’t believe we should pickle everything in the past and we should not hark back to some rose-tinted glory days because the reality was extreme poverty.‘We are famous for building bridges. This is a new opportunity to connect people.’
Hopes have been raised and dashed many times on Teesside and everyone wants to believe this is different. I offer up a silent prayer that I’m witnessing a rebirth of industry that would make our forebears proud.
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