I recently visited the Wilderness Way exhibition at MIMA. In the exhibition are two huge images of Margaret Thatcher walking across the post-industrial wastelands of Teesside. The photographs were taken during her 1987 visit to endorse the work of her pet project, the newly formed Teesside Development Corporation (TDC).
The TDC was the largest Development Corporation in England, covering some 12,000 acres in the North East of England. Established in September 1987 and wound up on 31 March 1998, it received total government grants of £354 million and generated other income of £116 million, including income from the sale of land and property. Over its lifetime the Corporation helped attract private sector investment of £1.1 billion into the area, created over 12,000 new jobs and brought 1,300 acres of derelict land back into use.
From 1987 onwards the TDC were more or less given carte-blanche to regenerate a number of former industrial sites around the River Tees and Hartlepool areas. The Corporation was not popular with the local councils, it was accused of being secretive and autocratic, spending vast amounts of public money with little or no public consultation.
One of the development sites was an area of industrial land on the banks of the River Tees at Thornaby called Teesdale. The history of the Teesdale site reflects the industrial history of the area. In the mid 19th century, the area was known as South Stockton. The land was largely open fields with a couple of small ship building yards.
By the beginning of the 20th century South Stockton had merged with Thornaby to form the municipal borough of Thornaby on Tees. The shipyards had expanded and three large iron works had become established, The Thornaby Ironworks, The Union Foundry and the Teesdale Ironworks. By the mid 20th century the whole site was being operated by Head Wrightson.
The area thrived and by the 1960s the site employed 6000 people, specialising in heavy engineering projects. In the mid 1970s the site was bought by The Davy Corporation. Foreign competition led to dwindling orders and a general decline, the site finally closed in 1987
I decided to have a wander around the site and reflect on the changes that had occurred over the past few decades.
I’m guessing that Thornaby railway station fell outside of the TDC development area boundary. If you are travelling along the Tees valley railway line, this station is the only access to Thornaby and central Stockton, it does not make a good first impression. The world’s first passenger railway ran within a short walk from the station yet the only reference to this is George Stephenson House, home of HM Revenue & Customs, a building located some distance from the railway station.
The Teesdale development is a mixture of commercial buildings and housing, It is a triumph of the bland, an example of off-the-shelf hive architecture, most of the buildings have nondescript, unimaginative names or no name at all. A number of the buildings are empty or partially occupied, To Let signs litter the area. The call centres that once occupied the buildings have moved to places where labour and rents are cheaper.
My impression of the whole Teesdale site is that the planners took a year zero approach. There is no evidence or acknowledgement that this area was once a thriving, prosperous part of industrial Teesside, the land here is historically sterile.
In other parts of the country, you can find clues to a site’s history by looking at the names of the roads and buildings, that is not the case here. The roads have all been named after prominent foreign universities; Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Fudan, Sabatier, and bizarrely, West Point Military Academy.
The two saving graces of this site are the riverside frontage, which is extensive, and the fast growing vegetation which manages to hide much of the architectural blandness behind grassy banks and thick foliage.
The road that used to run across the site was called Trafalgar Street, a new road now runs along its most northerly section, this road is called the Council of Europe Boulevard and leads to the Princess of Wales Bridge. I’m guessing brexiteers may lobby to restore the name Trafalgar in a year or two.
During the election campaign of 1997 Margaret Thatcher returned to the site with John Major. They unveiled a plaque and planted a tree at Dunedin House, the TDC building, before Baroness Thatcher and Mr Major headed for lunch at Marton Country Club. Dunedin house is mostly unoccupied, I could not find the plaque.
The TDC was wound up in 1998. Initially it was thought to have left a surplus of £14 million. In reality, it left unaccounted debts of £40 million and allegations of secret accounts and shredded documents.
A few years ago I bought a copy of Max Lock’s Middlesbrough Survey & Plan. I went to collect the book from the seller who turned out to be Sir Ron Norman, former chairman of the TDC. One of Sir Ron’s hobbies is bookbinding. I managed to get a small discount on the book as Sir Ron had mis-spelt Max Locks name.