I’ve been digging through some of my old images of the South Bank Coke Ovens. I took these around 2015. At the time it barely crossed my mind that within a decade the whole industry would be reduced to rubble.
The conservative government had an opportunity to save the industry and made the deliberate decision not to do so. The conservative mayor who vowed to bring steelmaking back to Teesside has also informed us that ‘a Tsunami’ of jobs are on the way.
Prompted by a recent visit to the South Gare and seeing the state of the Redcar Blast Furnace, I began to reflect on how this came about and how we failed to grasp an opportunity to create a unique statement in the landscape that celebrates the area and our iron steel making history.
During the past decade, UK and European steelmakers began to fail as they could not compete with the cheaper, imported steel that was flooding the market. A number of EU countries intervened to protect what they viewed as a strategic industry, others chose to allow market forces to run their course.
Steelmaking on Teesside ceased in 2015. The current government was asked to intervene, they chose not to. Steelmaking on Teesside was allowed to fail, the cause of the failure was blamed on falling steel prices due to cheap imported steel flooding European markets.
Over the past 30 years the skylines of many of many British cities and towns have been changed beyond recognition. If you consider that pretty much every new building, bridge, railway, underground network, football stadium, shopping center, and industrial development uses large quantities of steel in their construction, the majority of this steel is imported. Successive governments have failed to provide incentives that would allow developers to source their materials from the domestic market e.g. the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC, was built within sight of the steelworks. The stadium was constructed using German steel.
With the loss of the steel industry, planning for the redevelopment of the massive steelworks site commenced. We had an opportunity to not only redevelop the site for new industries but also create a new landscape which could benefit the community both economically and culturally and contain at least one genuinely iconic monument to the workers and industry that gave birth to modern Middlesbrough and sustained many of the area’s communities.
In 2017, The South Tees Development Corporation was formed under the leadership of Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen. Following consultations, a master plan was formulated and in November 2019 a revised version was issued. The plan provided details of the redevelopment of the Redcar Steelworks site and included an Open Space and Landscape Strategy which detailed items such the soft and hard landscaping of the site and ‘iconic architectural features’. The plan identified ‘a key opportunity to develop a strong heritage theme within the overall fabric of the developed business park’.
DORMAN LONG TOWER AT SOUTH BANK This is a local landmark structure that could be retained and adapted for uses such as a viewing platform, climbing/abseiling wall, etc. integrated into the heritage trail given its location near to the Teesdale way/Black Path. The plan would be that the tower be illuminated at night to provide a striking symbol of the area’s iron and steel making heritage at the southern end of the newly established business park.
SOUTH BANK COKE OVENS BATTERY This structure lies along a boundary line of the South Industrial Zone, close to the Teesdale Way/Black Path and it could be retained without impinging on prime development land. The Battery is an impressive example of industrial architecture. There are several examples around the world of coke ovens structures being preserved and made safe as large-scale industrial heritage and visitor attractions, that can be explored by the introduction of stairways and walkways.
REDCAR BLAST FURNACE In many respects the most notable feature of any integrated iron and steel works, whether operational or non-operational, a blast furnace is an impressive example of industrial architecture at its best. Located at the northern end of the development, at the boundary between the North Industrial Zone and Coastal Community Zone Redcar Blast Furnace is ideally situated for preservation as a major landmark and visitor attraction.
The plan was well-received locally, it promised much needed development and jobs whilst also acknowledging a desire to retain and repurpose important elements of our steelmaking heritage in a way that would enhance the local environment and attract visitors to the former steelworks site. This approach was supported by Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council and was documented in their 2018 Local Plan.
Other people and organisations offered alternative visions of the redevelopment of the site. Artist, Len Tabner’s vision of the site, Hollie Welch’s vision of the Blast Furnace.
Ben Houchen was re-elected as Mayor and the clearing and decontamination of the former steelworks site commenced under the banner of Teesworks. In September 2020 the Mayor formed the Teesworks Heritage Committee. The independent committee was co-chaired by Redcar MP Jacob Young and Kate Willard OBE, members were John Baker, Tosh Warwick and Laura Case, Head of Culture & Tourism, representing Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council.
In January 2021 the committee recommended the following:
That the Blast Furnace be dismantled. They further recommend that a plan is put in place to identify and record what materials and artefacts of industrial architecture from the Blast Furnace should be salvaged to create one or more Blast Furnace memorials or displays on the Teesworks site and/or at other locations, but not at the current location of the Blast Furnace. Further, the Taskforce recommends that work on assessing the future of the Dorman Long coal bunker aka ‘Dorman Long Tower’ at South Bank as a potential retained built asset on the site be continued.
The Committee made no reference to the STDC 2019 Master Plan and its bold vision.
During 2021 The Coke Ovens were demolished and the Dorman Long Tower was deemed to be uneconomic and not worth saving. A grass-roots campaign to save the tower was launched and gained national attention. Teesworks Heritage Committee co-chairman Jacob Young MP started an online petition to save the tower but later changed his mind stating that it would be too costly to save and maintain.
In a last-ditch effort to save the Dorman Long Tower, Historic England granted Grade II listing status to the building.
Historic England’s reason for listing
It’s a recognised and celebrated example of early Brutalist architecture, a fine example of austere design that simply, yet wholeheartedly expresses its function.
It’s a deliberate monumental architectural statement of confidence by the then newly denationalised Dorman Long company in the mid-1950s.
It’s a rare (considered to be nationally unique) surviving structure from the 20th-century coal, iron and steel industries.
It’s a design which is above the purely functional which also cleverly combines control-room, storage and firefighting functions for a state-of-the-art coking plant.
For its association with, and an advert for, Dorman Long which dominated the steel and heavy engineering industry of Teesside for most of the 20th century, a leading firm nationally with an international reputation, for example building the Sydney Harbour Bridge
In Sept 2021, as one of her first acts in the role, the New Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, revoked the listing on the grounds that the structure did not “merit” listing and the building was hastily demolished. Teesworks Heritage Committee co-chairman Jacob Young MP asked for the lettering on the side of the tower to be saved for posterity, the lettering was destroyed during the demolition of the tower. The demolition of the Redcar Blast Furnace, BOS plant and other parts of the steelworks site is currently ongoing.
The Mayor’s Electoral Pledge
During the Tees Valley Mayoral election of 2020 Ben Houchen also made the following pledge
“Not only am I pledging to bring steelmaking back to Teesside if re-elected in May, but I’m already working on how we can do this. “I’ve already had early discussions with a number of organisations to bring steelmaking back to Teesside. “We’ve developed a plan and I’ve identified a huge opportunity. “Millions of tonnes of steel could be produced on Teesside and be internationally competitive.
This pre-election pledge earned Mayor Houchen a lot of support. Following the election there has been little or no mention of steelmaking returning to Teesside. Quite the opposite, in Sept 2022 Mayor Houchen celebrated the first import into his flagship freeport, a consignment of steel, the Mayor described this as “just the tip of the iceberg” source
Teesside and the surrounding areas badly need new investment and jobs, we have a the highest poverty rates in the UK (overall Teesside rates rates 25%, overall Teesside child poverty 37%, child poverty in Middlesbrough 48%). As well as economic improvement we also deserve to live in a decent built environment. The redevelopment of the steelworks site could have helped to meet both of these needs, especially for the communities who have lived in the shadow of the steelworks.
I’m aware that there was a strong local voice to completely flatten the steelworks and ‘have done with it’. This is understandable, the production of iron and steel is a dirty, polluting process and people naturally wanted to move on. However, much of the opposition was also driven by the mayors ‘either/or’ approach. Whenever the issue was raised, the mayor would brand any opposition as ‘anti-progress’ and ‘activists’. He would state that the repurposing of the iconic structures was unaffordable and, despite their relatively small footprint and peripheral locations, would threaten the building of new factories on the vast 7 square mile site.
My personal opinion is that by deliberately choosing not to take the opportunities to create something unique on Teesside, our local and national politicians, fully supported by local heritage committee members, have failed us and future generations.
The tragedy of this has little to do with new technology as such, or so-called post-industrialism. It stems, it bleeds, not from the fact that science has discovered electronics, but from the fact that everything which constituted the loves of those living here is now being treated as irrelevant.
John Berger. Understanding a Photograph. Penguin Classics 2013.
Published in 1926 by photographer and commercial printer, Harold Hood, Middlesbrough Pictorial & Industrial is Hoods love letter to Middlesbrough. Hood photographed the town, its people, buildings and industry. He quotes one critic as saying, If they felt about it as I do they would make a bonfire of the place tomorrow, and pitch the statues of its creators head-most into the flames..
Unlike many industrial relics, the Redcar Blast Furnace has a positive association with the local population, and stands as a monument to industrial Teesside which should not be lost following closure and decommissioning.
By repurposing the site through the provision of a climbing hub and offshore survival training facility, the Blast Furnace presents exciting opportunities to develop the offshore industry sector emerging in the area and to celebrate local heritage.