”When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty . . .” Geoff Waterfield is getting emotional. “I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays, and bring up their families. That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline . . . that blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside. ICI were massive around here and they fell to pieces. When the hard times come, people just pull out. But you can’t just pull out of the steel industry.”
Waterfield is a typical Corus employee – 22 years in the job, born and raised around the corner from the Redcar plant, with a father, grandfather and uncle who have all worked in the steel industry. He is also the chairman of Middlesbrough’s Save Our Steel campaign, and the union boss for the Indian-owned conglomerate in the area. Thanks to what the Corus chief Kirby Adams has described as a “global and over-supplied steel market”, the threat of hundreds of redundancies has loomed over Teesside all year, the latest stay of execution being a 60-day extension until the end of October.
“For the moment, we’re still in the game,” says Waterfield.
Steel is certainly more global and more competitive than it used to be: the lifts in Middlesbrough’s city-centre shopping mall are engraved with thetelling words “Thyssen Krupp” – the German steel giant. “There are definitely signs of recovery in the industry,” Waterfield says, “but the glory days of the north-east when the shipping industry, the mining industry and the steel industry guaranteed jobs for life are gone.”
With 3,000 Corus employees on Teesside, Save Our Steel estimates there are 10,000 people in total directly affected by the plant’s potential closure. Waterfield wants direct government intervention in response to this latter-day manufacturing crisis. “This is a Labour heartland, and if they don’t act they’re going to lose voters for a whole generation. People in the steel industry have memories like elephants. There’s nothing we have left that’s sustainable; we need a 20- or 30-year plan to rebuild the manufacturing industry in this country, because otherwise what are we going to do?”
What indeed? The big buzz in Middlesbrough on a Saturday morning in late summer is around a water-sports festival called Take to the Tees, part of an optimistic push towards a post-industrial economy. The Transporter Bridge is now used chiefly for bungee jumping and abseiling because there is not enough heavy industry left to support its original raison d’être. “Historical tours and presentations are also available”, concedes a sign sadly.
On the way to Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium, we pass the colossal Middlesbrough College, a £70m silver half-moon of a building, gleaming in the afternoon sunshine and freckled with random yellow bricks – part of the £2bn Tees Valley Regeneration project. Next to the stadium sits a Costa Container Line ship bathing idly in rust, beside construction hoardings promising “on-water activities” and a “state-of-the-art marina”. From international shipping to pedalos and yachts? It is an unlikely but creative stab at adaptation. Outside the stadium entrance a local band named the Princes of Monte Carlo play rock classics to a bemused but happy pre-match crowd.
Football has an especially intense relationship with civic morale and identity in the north-east (Boro’s nickname is “the Smoggies”), as well as huge implications for the local economy, so last season’s relegation from the Premiership could not have been worse timed. But the club have started the season well, and are hoping for an immediate return to the top flight. “If Boro’s recent form doesn’t cheer people up . . .” the BBC Radio Tees presenter had said that morning, before tailing off, disinclined to finish the thought.
Jill Calvert, a Middlesbrough steward, does not seem to need cheering up. She is as ebullient as her neon jacket: “People say there’s no jobs round here, but I’ve got four!” The problem, she says, is that “immoral” people do not want the low-paid part-time jobs available. She cites a conversation with a shopowner in a less salubrious part of town: “He told me he only ever sells three things to them: tinfoil for the drugs, cans of Carling Black Label and Pot Noodles.”
Later, we take a meandering night drive to the Corus plant, and the blast furnace really is beautiful: uplit in yellow, balanced on Teesside’s coastal fringe amid gypsy horses and brownfield sites, far removed from the everytown global brands and disloyal lifts of Middlesbrough city centre. Against the black expanse of the North Sea sky, blueish flames leap from chimneys and steam gushes from cooling towers, haunting the city with what feels like a bygone vision of the future: the celebrated opening scene of Blade Runner was conceived by Ridley Scott in Middlesbrough when he was growing up, in the city’s postwar heyday.
After Corus, we weave through bizarre Disneyesque regeneration projects – all pastel colours, soft edges and bullet-pointed promises – and steer past the tucked shirts and short skirts of the high street to St Hilda’s, the oldest and most maligned part of Middlesbrough. This is literally the wrong side of the tracks: the railway is the dividing line and “over the border”, as local people describe the area, is eerily quiet, with half-demolished social housing standing isolated on large patches of brown-green scrub, waiting to be put out of its misery. The amputated block that was once Richmond Street has only numbers 13-23 remaining and, of these, just three houses are still occupied. The rest are boarded up with cheap aluminium.
Somewhere near the border, a sign bearing the phrase “a bright future for Middlesbrough” is just about visible under the dim street lights.