When I was ten years old, my family left a cold, damp prefab in West Fife and moved to Corby, Northamptonshire, where my father quickly found work at what was then the Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks. Because we didn’t know any better, we thought – like many other migrant families – that we had finally discovered a home, a place where we could pursue the first glimmers of a confidence and self-respect that others appeared to take for granted.
The steelworks was thriving, and there was plenty of overtime to be had. For a boy of ten, used to the coal bings and rust-coloured burns of Cowdenbeath, the fields and woodland of Kingswood, with its overgrown but stately avenue of copper-barked sequoias, felt like a local version of paradise.
The general opinion, in those days, was that Corby was an eyesore, a dark blot on the English landscape, but those who settled there didn’t see it that way. Most of us had come from far worse places and, to the men who produced what many considered to be the best-quality steel tubes in Europe, the works was a source of pride and solidarity.
All of this ended in the early 1980s when the works was closed down. Over a period of a year or so (my father was one of the last to go), thousands of workers were made idle in a town where there had been little investment for decades. Yet it wasn’t just the closure that, in a phrase used often by those who lived there, “ripped the heart out of Corby”; it was the tactics used – a process of slow attrition and deception, in which “tubeside” workers were tempted into abandoning their “steelside” colleagues.
The obvious disdain for the community from local and national government did huge damage to Corby’s sense of itself. Corby people were proud, bluff, volatile and good-humoured, a mix of Glaswegian, Irish, eastern European and other migrants who had, for the most part, only just begun to believe in the hope of a better life. Now, it seemed, they were being punished for daring to imagine above their station.
Cosmetic efforts followed. In what was touted as a sincere effort to deal with the problem, the Conservatives created a new enterprise zone and, by the early 1990s, Corby had supposedly recovered from the closure. Yet many of the steelmen never worked again, and those who did drifted significantly down the wages ladder. Schools were closed and educational standards fell (according to the 2001 census, Corby had the lowest per-capita degree-level qualifications in England and Wales, and almost 40 per cent of the population had no GCSEs at all). A town that had begun as a trendy architect’s cut-rate laboratory had become what the Daily Telegraph called “one of the most malformed places in Britain”.
On top of all this, the borough council was forced to fight, but lost, a damaging legal case, in which it was found to have been “extensively negligent in its control and management” of land that it had acquired from British Steel. This led to birth defects in children born in the area, after their mothers inhaled “an atmospheric soup of toxic materials”. Suddenly, Corby – supposedly a shining example of Conservative “deindustrialisation” – was being exposed as an environmental, social and human disaster whose ills were caused not by the dark, Satanic mills of the old steelworks, but by human negligence, incompetence and greed.
Deindustrialisation, like development, is what you make of it. It has become clear, over the three decades since the steelworks closed, that deindustrialisation in Corby was never intended to liberate its people from hard labour and pollution. What mattered was the freeing up of land for development and the absorption of EU and other grants for a seemingly more innocent project – suburbanisation.
Like the developers and architects who built Corby New Town in the 1950s and 1960s, the people responsible for that suburbanisation appear not to know or care very much about Corby’s history or culture; the point is to develop. Yet, while nobody would argue that sensitive and well-planned development is exactly what brownfield Corby needs, it’s the villages and countryside around Corby – that local paradise I so treasured as a child – which are being swallowed up. As Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, said in 2006: “Of all the councils that are doing least to channel development on to brownfield sites, Corby is the worst offender.” Now, with an advertising campaign under the slogan More for Your Money, fea-turing the mellifluous voice of Stephen Fry, Corby’s developers are hoping to attract residents into the town’s formerly green overspill.
A brand new railway station has appeared, with hourly services to St Pancras in London. New shops are springing up. And, according to the website of the local MP Phil Hope: “The impact of investment in recent years has brought about astonishing changes . . . to shops, education, health, transport, housing and sport and culture.” Yet what is noticeable about this rosy picture is that there is no mention of local employment, or of Corby’s industrial history.
Works of man
All this may sound unduly bleak but, as a former Corbyite, I am saddened by the thought that, over the years, the town has been a test case for all of modern society’s ills, from a brutal industrial relations policy, through social neglect and bad planning, to environmental disaster and cynical developers.
Not long before I first arrived, a small boy stepping off a bus one grey morning with a birdcage in one hand and a Children’s Classics tale by Hans Christian Andersen in the other, Unesco made a series of recommendations regarding land development, in which it stated: “On account of their beauty and character, the safeguarding of landscapes and sites . . . is necessary to the life of men, for whom they represent a powerful physical, moral and spiritual regenerating influence, while at the same time contributing to the artistic and cultural life of peoples.” It went on: “Protection should not be limited to natural landscapes and sites, but should also extend to [those] whose formation is due wholly or in part to the work of man.”
I cannot imagine the people who drafted these recommendations wishing to preserve the old Corby steelworks in aspic, but I am certain they would agree that the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of the people who once worked there, and that of the next generation, are not well served by sprawl and suburbanisation. As a child, I loved the green fields and the woods around the New Town, but I also came to see the beauty and character of its industry, as evidenced by the steelworks and by the people who worked there. That beauty, that industrial character, has become deeply unfashionable but, to my mind, we lose it at our peril.
“Astonishing” as developments in Corby may appear to some, all I can see is one more stratum of insulting “development”, spread thinly over the buried layers of ore and farmland and toxic waste that went before.
John Burnside is an award-winning poet and author
As darkness fell . . .
Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 proved disastrous for many British workers, as Thatcher’s commitments to privatisation, the free market and muzzling the trade unions transformed British industry.
Thatcherite economic policy was most acutely felt in the coal industry, where tens of thousands of jobs were lost as pits were shut down. A decisive moment was Thatcher’s appointment of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board in 1983. At British Steel, he had halved the workforce by closing plants and helping thousands to decide on voluntary redundancy.
Thatcher turned to MacGregor to pull the same trick at the National Coal Board. Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), accused him of trying to “destroy the coal mining industry and the NUM”. MacGregor replied that he was merely a “plastic surgeon”, working “to rebuild damaged features”. The surgery involved closing 20 pits that were seen as unprofitable. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s government introduced legislation to crush the unions.
The confrontation that followed led to the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The industrial action failed to create the kind of blackout that could have swayed the government, and the miners were defeated.