Teesworks: Bold claims for new jobs – but do they offer a bright future or empty promises?
On the eve of the election of the mayor of Tees Valley, Local Democracy Reporter STUART ARNOLD visits Dormanstown, Redcar to get the locals’ perspective on one of Mayor Ben Houchen’s major projects – the Teesworks industrial site.
Bold claims of thousands of new jobs continue to be made and millions of pounds of public money have been invested in preparing the old steel mill site for new employers to move in.
Recently, the multinational GE announced that it would build a new wind turbine manufacturing plant at Teesworks, on the back of a government award of â€œfreeportâ€ status.
But with just 500 jobs created so far – and those involved in the demolition and reclamation work – many doubts remain about the mayor’s predictions for a bright future for the site and its surroundings.
So, do people believe in Teesworks’ bright future for the residents of Dormanstown or is everything a bit hot?
SIX years ago, I was in Dormanstown on one of the darkest days in recent Teesside history – the announcement of the closure of the nearby SSI steel plant.
This is the first time I have been back since and the immediate impressions weren’t great – I walk past the same vandalized bus shelter that I remember walking past that day.
There’s also graffiti on the walls next to the neighborhood convenience store in Ennis Square, which no one bothered to wash off, paying homage to a poor dead soul.
But first impressions don’t always count and I risk doing Dormanstown a disservice.
As I walk around, I pass rows of well-kept bungalows and gardens – there is clearly a pride among the residents.
There are also tall greens that meander with the grass as if it had been freshly mown.
It makes me wonder how many other densely populated residential areas there are in Teesside that would kill for having such a large amount of green space.
In Ennis Square, there is a lot of commotion as workers board vans for lunch at sandwich bars and dinners and people collect essentials from the Sainsburys supermarket.
The two large car parks are almost full.
A Union Jack flag flies high from the Royal British Legion social club, they love their union jacks here – more of that later.
Right next to the square are depots owned by the Arriva transport company, the city council and new construction offices for the Beyond Housing housing company.
It is about a mile as the crow flies from Dormanstown to the new Â£ 3million entrance to Teesworks, as the many crows basking in the sun on a large playground off Trunk Road would attest. if they could speak rather than scream.
My goal is to get opinions on Teesworks, are people aware of this, do they think it can have a positive impact on the area and do they know someone who has found a job there – jobs for the people local, as Mayor Houchen likes to say.
It is not a promising start.
I call into a store where the owner says he knows the mayor, thinks he’s doing a good job, but doesn’t want to comment.
It’s about to shut down, so I grab a slice of corned beef to feed myself and then walk over to â€œPhil,â€ another retailer across the road.
Phil isn’t here, I’m told, so I try my luck with a driver and his passenger sitting in a work vehicle looking like they are on a break from work.
Do they know anyone who has a job at Teesworks? â€œNah,â€ comes the answer.
â€œAre you aware of what’s going on there in terms of all the money that’s going into there?â€
â€œA little, but not a lotâ€.
I have a little chat and move on.
In another place – Farndale Square – I get a warmer response from the Community Stepping Stones team.
It is a non-profit, community-based business whose main objective is to help people with learning disabilities increase their skills and knowledge and take steps to become self-reliant.
I’m invited to chat in their hub cafe for a chat – before the pandemic the hub was typically a popular hangout for local community groups, but today it’s only co-owners Di Pearson and Jo Foster and their volunteer colleague Nicky Long.
Di, a trained social worker who then went on to further his education, says young community members are expressing frustration with Teesworks and the general lack of jobs in the area.
She says some older workers who were once employed in the old steel mills and who are still of working age, but who have not found a job, have “given up” and are not looking to retrain.
Instead, after taking early retirement, they will “see” until they reach the point where they can draw their state pension to supplement their current income.
â€œI don’t know what’s being built there or what industries are coming to the area,â€ she says.
â€œThey were talking about something to do with hydrogen, I think, but I don’t know how that will help the job market here.
â€œYoung people here – if they want to find high-end jobs, they tend to move because the jobs promised on this site may not be ready yet.
â€œSome of the jobs we are talking about also seem quite technical and if you don’t have that expertise directly, there is nothing for you now.
â€œThere may be some in a few years, but by then you lost a generation of workers and they left the area.â€
Warming up on the theme, she adds: â€œThere are people who want to stay in the neighborhood, but at the moment there is nothing for them.
“Personally, for me, the only time I hear what’s going on [at Teesworks] it’s when somebody wants to promote themselves or there’s an election coming up or something like that.
â€œPromises are made at some point and people in desperation can hold on to any kind of hope, but then they get very discouraged and their vote can go to someone else.
“It has always been typically a Labor field, but it has shifted in recent years and then backtracked.”
‘Beautiful progressive population’
â€œWe’ve been here for about two and a half years and have gotten to know the community very well,â€ says Jo, a teacher whose background helps people with learning disabilities.
â€œThey are a nice progressive population, but we are probably second, almost third generation unemployed in the region.
â€œWe know people who worked there before [at the steelworks], but they were not reused on the site.
â€œNo type of job opportunity has yet been screened.
â€œWe don’t know if we’ll see anything in the next five years.
â€œThe site has already made headlines, but it has now gone silent, we are not talking about it here.
“I think it will be the outside workers who will come in and get the jobs created.”
Di says the coronavirus outbreak has led to many mental health issues in the area and that there are people “living in total isolation.”
Not being able to have visitors in the cafe as usual, they had to change the way they worked – going out individually to meet people â€œwith deckchairs in the gardens in frontâ€ and â€œvirtual stuffâ€.
“We would do craft sessions and things like a way to engage people and then we would link up and point out other support organizations, but we don’t see the same people face to face and they are struggling.” , she says.
â€œAs a community-based business, we try to be self-financing and there have also been some government grants that challenge us.
â€œFortunately, we have a great community that is really supportive and we receive a lot of donations.â€
Across the street in the local butcher’s shop, I ask the staff if people feel a benefit from Teesworks.
â€œNot yet,â€ says Joe Cherkaoui. â€œIt’s not different yet if I’m honest.
“I hope things change, it might help us sell more pies.”
And how is business going at the moment?
â€œBusiness is going well at the moment, I can’t complain, the lockdown has helped a lot, people have eaten more,â€ he says.
Back in the square, I talk to young people on bicycles standing in front of a fish chip shop to ask them what they think of the area and if they think there are career opportunities here for them.
“Nah,” said one of them.
“I’m in college, but there’s nothing really here,” he said before they left with their bags of crisps.
On the way back to the car, I pass an elderly man on an old-fashioned pedal bike driving down the street while wearing a Union Jack helmet and with two Union Jack flags attached to each handlebars.
It’s a bit of a weird sight.
I put on a wry smile and he smiles back at me.
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I leave wondering what the future holds for the residents of Domanstown, whether they are old or particularly young.
Will they hang the flags, the good quality, well paying jobs for local people promised at Teesworks have finally arrived, or will they go down because of promises that never came true?
Time will tell us.