(Updated 21/08/2020) In mid August 2020 the Tees Valley Metro Mayor, Ben Houchen announced the launch of the new Teesworks initiative to rebrand the ex SSI steelwork site which in recent years is known as South Tees Development Corporation land (STDC). As part of the launch he announced that Redcar’s redundant blast furnace along with eight other buildings would be demolished. Since 2015 and the realisation that the “Save Our Steel” campaign was not going to be rescued by the Conservative government there has been numerous cultural meetings to discuss whether there is scope to reimagine this sleeping giant. Other industrial towns across the world have successfully repurposed blast furnaces and industrial works for cultural, leisure, economic and environmental purposes in order to remain connected with their past and the identity associated with those towns. So the question is, should Redcar’s blast furnace be demolished as seemingly decided already by the Mayor or should there be a public consultation to consider repurposing it as a functioning venue and/or as a monumental piece of industrial heritage art?
In my opinion, I think the most important thing is to give people a say. What do they want? These iconic buildings are as much about the people who live here and their families and their ancestry as they are about the buildings themselves and the representation of identity and heritage. Many people will recognise and appreciate the symbolism of the blast furnace and the connection with the history, economy, employment and growth of the town and area. Others may think it is an eyesore and always disliked the image of the works from the seafront vista. I’ve heard both sides of this conversation over the years. Being scheduled for demolition is nine structures as part of the Teesworks programme:
- Redcar Blast Furnace
- Redcar Coke Ovens
- Redcar Raw Materials Handling Facility
- Redcar Sinter Plant
- Redcar Power Station
- Lackenby Steelmaking Plant
- Lackenby Coil Plate Mill Complex
- South Bank Coke Ovens
- Grangetown Torpedo Ladle Repair Facility
Subsequently the Tees Valley Mayor has received much interest from many people who would prefer to preserve some of the buildings, including the Redcar Blast Furnace, the Dorman Long Tower, and the Coke Ovens for heritage, art, cultural and commercial purposes. Some people had been discussing this collectively as part of a scoping exercise called “Bridging the World” with representation from local councils, Teesside university and art institutions. Ben Houchen has been in contact with the group and is now requesting more input from people. In a recent message the Tees Valley Mayor requests suggestions regarding the steel works and has said “This is an important part of the site redevelopment process and I hope people do engage with it positively”. He wants to understand people’s priorities for preserving our heritage and thereafter see what can realistically be done. People can put their ideas in through the form here: https://www.teesworks.co.uk/heritage/
Many suggestions would come in from a consultation which will undoubtedly include heritage, museum and ‘knock them down’ of course, but let’s hear them. This was my same point regarding the Redcar Regent Cinema where no consultation was planned. Leaders listen to the people, not prescribe what is best for us because they were wooed by an idea or are driven by something else? Let the people have their say. Regarding the Regent, on that occasion people saw the conceptual replacement plans for a brand new cinema. They were given something of substance to make an informed choice over. Overwhelmingly those who filled out the consultation wanted the new build. It may not be to everyone’s liking but at least there was an opportunity to air your views. If, however, public opinion had overwhelmingly gone the other way to preserve and original build on the existing 100 year old Bolchow framework, which would have been possible, would democracy have been served to save it?
The difference with demolishing the blast furnace and all, is there is no conceptual replacement because there is no offer for this land. The alternative to preserving or repurposing, is to knock these down at an estimated £130 million and that’s just to clear the land with no businesses, industry or manufacturing putting forward plans or showing any interest in these locations. When the Coatham Bowl was knocked down we lost a concert arena. That site has now stood empty for years with the promises all but evaporated. Hundreds of acres of STDC land already lay empty and is already clear of buildings waiting for investors. Why the desperation to clear this site now and not light it up instead and celebrate it as a piece of Redcar’s history?
If a public consultation were held what could be imagined? There will be suggestions that will and won’t be around tourism such as a steel heritage museum and visitor centre or something similar to Saltholme where industry meets nature. The size means it can be multifunctional. So various events being held at the same venue. Redcar & Cleveland doesn’t have anywhere for grand conferences or an exhibition centre. Huge events for these purposes are held in many places in the country but nowhere nearby. The facility could be used in association with music festivals or sporting events such as the marathon, triathlon and Tour De Yorkshire.
In terms of identity art and place marketing the blast furnace should certainly be a contender for a monument of a proud past. Somewhere to be to be lit up with pride, just as other blast furnaces have been across the world and it would look spectacular for miles around. This borough does have some experience of illumination on a grand scale such as the impressive Odin’s Glow event in 2009 at Newton-under-Roseberry and Roseberry Topping. The event saw 10,000 centre on Newton-Under-Roseberry over four days. Again this was visible for miles.
Finally, and I’ll focus more on this on a follow up post, Redcar hardly has any identity art either and where there is, it is either abstract, subtle or without interpretation. Why haven’t we any artwork on or around the seafront in Redcar that truly represents Redcar? Other towns across the world have managed this. The examples above whether repurposing or not are to show off who they are through art creation. Duisburg steel works amongst others is an impressive example of using their blast furnace and industrial structure to celebrate their history, but Redcar has a rich history beyond iron and steel.
One thing aside from the iron and steel heritage associated with Redcar is horse racing, but just as the town centre has no sense of being coastal (aside the bizarre red fish sculpture!), there is no appreciation of the history of horseracing in our town. Horse racing started on the beach in the 18h Century right up until 1880 when the racecourse became it’s home. Giant interactable sculptures of galloping horses with interpretation of why they are there would be amazing for Redcar. Redcar is also married to the RNLI and there is a rich history but again, there is no real effort to hang our hat on this relationship. There is more but I’ll stop as this is worthy of a post of its own. The blast furnace and steelworks in general isn’t visually or sympathetically celebrated through art in Redcar, in the same way that local heritage is captured so successfully in town’s as seen throughout this article. Capturing Redcar’s most iconic symbol of industry as a bold and proud statement would be a hugely significant and powerful representation of this area’s history, even if that was all it could be – a blast of our past.
Have your say on Redcar’s Blast furnace and other. Other places act on their imagination. Why not here? Please fill out this two minute form if you want to be heard 👇🏻