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British Steel worker calls for ‘level playing field’ over rates & energy costs

Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

By Kris Jepson

Exclusive: A Teesside steelworker has told ITV News Tyne Tees that the government must “take action” over business rates and energy costs, as questions hang over the future of British Steel.

The company was forced into compulsory liquidation in May despite the government providing it with a bridging loan of £120m in April to comply with EU emissions rules. The move followed a breakdown in rescue talks between the government and the company's owner, Greybull Capital.

The official receiver is currently discussing the sale of British Steel with several bidders, however a deal in unlikely to be secured imminently.

The ongoing uncertainty has raised concerns in the North East communities of the firm’s plants at Lackenby and Skinningrove.

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The Steelworker

Richard Caddy has worked at Lackenby steelworks near Middlesbrough, Teesside, for 24 years. Several generations of his family have plied their trade in the industry for more than 120 years.

Just 10 years ago he campaigned to save 1,700 steelworker’s jobs at Corus’ Redcar site amid plans to mothball the plant. That site’s blast furnace was finally extinguished in 2015 when SSI collapsed, costing more than 2,000 workers their jobs.

Walking along Redcar beach with the now dormant former SSI blast furnace filling the skyline, the steelworker told ITV News he is “hopeful” British Steel can be saved but said the government must “take action” to help the industry become more sustainable.

We’ve been through it before. We know the motions, we know we could be close to seeing the worst thing possible happen. But hopefully this time it feels different. It feels as though the government are potentially going to take some action and that’s what we need.

My main concern is the government not giving the backing that we need to put us on a level playing field. Our energy costs, our business rates are more or less double what some factories are in Europe.

The staff have all sacrificed pay cuts and such as, you know, over the years, pension cuts. It’s about time the government made their side of the bargain."

– Richard Caddy
Richard Caddy has worked at Lackenby steelworks near Middlesbrough, Teesside, for 24 years. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Government Response

The Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Secretary, Greg Clark MP, told ITV News the official receiver is "currently going through, in detail, the due diligence, the checks, on the bids that have been made" and he said he is "very confident in the future of the industry", because "we have a reputation for some of the best steel-making in the world" and "that is one of the reasons we have got such a passion to do everything we can... to make the best possible case to potential owners".

Asked about the steelworkers' concerns about high business rates and energy costs, he said the government would work with bidders to make British Steel "more energy efficient".

One of the things the government has done over recent years is to provide a rebate on some of the energy costs. What happens in other countries is that households subsidise the electricity costs of businesses. We tend not to do that on the whole, but we’ve made an exception for energy intensive industries, like steel, whereby we rebate some of the costs, so that makes a big difference. But one of the other things we can do, and we want to work with bidders to do, is to improve the energy efficiency, to make them cleaner and greener and if there are plans to invest in the energy efficiency of the operations then that’s something the government is able to support through grants.

– Greg Clark MP, Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Secretary

Parliamentary Inquiry

In the Autumn a parliamentary inquiry on the Future of Steel in the UK will hear evidence about:

  • The role of Greybull Capital and other owners in supporting the UK steel industry as a whole
  • The performance of Government in supporting the competitiveness of the UK steel industry through a sector deal and other policies
  • The impact of Brexit, with or without a withdrawal agreement, for the steel sector
Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Richard Caddy admitted morale was low amongst the workforce due to the recent demise of British Steel, but he said the workers are “currently breaking production records” and “stepping up” because they “can’t afford to lose” the industry on Teesside.

It built our economy going back all them years back. Obviously a lot of that industry has now moved abroad and we can see the strengths of China, that have been one of the fastest growing economies in the world, on the back of steel production.

What really devastates me is, I’m looking at an empty coil plate mill building everyday and that coil plate mill is still rolling, just in another country. Why? Why aren’t we putting more protection in place for what we’ve built over the years with our expertise?

– Richard Caddy
Graham Cutler is a newly elected independent councillor Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

‘All about British Steel’

Thirteen miles down the East Cleveland coast, a newly elected independent councillor tends to a vehicle at his garage.

Graham Cutler’s Cuts Tyres and Exhausts sits in the shadow of British Steel’s Special Profiles plant in Carlin How, near Skinningrove. Cllr Cutler explained to ITV News “it’s all about British Steel. The name on the building over the road explains it all, it just says this is ‘Special Profiles’ because it is, it’s special.”

He said it is “important” that the company is sold as one entity, rather than several deals for individual plants, because “Scunthorpe brings the steel up here and that’s the idea of British Steel. We don’t want steel from other countries. We want it from here in Britain. Keep it together, keep it strong, keep it firm and we’ve got a community that can do that. We really have.”

Graham Cutler’s concern is not just for the British Steel workers and the community, but for his own business too.

There are workers round there that use us on a daily basis, the company itself uses us on a daily basis. It’s so important to us. Only last year we’ve taken on some new staff, which has built up and built up, but now it’s worrying.

I’ve got to sit back and I’ve got to see what happens. I’ve got to re-evaluate what’s going to happen in the garage itself… It would be devastating to let somebody go. I would hate to do it, I would fight tooth and nail to keep those people.

– Cllr Graham Cutler
Tracey Daniels runs Beach Road Fisheries chip shop Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

‘Forgotten’

Down in the valley beneath the Special Profiles plant lies the quiet and quaint fishing village of Skinningrove. It is a village steeped in industrial history too, right back to the 1800s when the first iron mines were opened, to the early 20th Century when the village began steel production.

As we walk through the village towards the beach, we find Tracey Daniels serving up locally caught battered fish and chips at her Beach Road Fisheries chip shop.

Decrying the lack of support for her part of the region, she told ITV News “I think East Cleveland is the forgotten East Cleveland. We don’t seem to get any good news lately and I don’t believe that we’re helped enough. We’re forgotten. We’re forgotten.”

She told us British Steel workers often place large lunchtime orders during the working week and without that trade, it will have a negative impact on her business.

When Boulby went, we had Boulby customers, then that stopped. Floods, road collapsed, couldn’t get any customers into the village.

If British Steel were to go, then again a huge impact on my business, and surrounding businesses. It’s scary. It’s quite a scary thought.

– Tracey Daniels
Sue Sweeney runs the Carlin How community centre Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

‘Getting out of hand’

One woman who is well connected in Carlin How and Skinningrove is Sue Sweeney. She runs the Carlin How community centre and speaks to British Steel workers and their families most days.

The uncertainty, she said, is “getting out of hand now”, adding “we’re hearing that many rumours, who's taking it over, who's not taking it over. A lot of them, they’re only young ones around here that work on there. It’s the only place to work, there’s nowhere else.”

It is the “wives that are worried”, Mrs Sweeney added. Yet through personal experience of past history, when the site has been in doubt before, she said somehow the workforce has always managed to maintain employment.

My husband's grandad worked on there. Now you’re going back 80, 90 years and it was closing down when he worked on there. When my husband worked there it was closing down.

I mean if it does close down it will affect here and it’s not only British Steel. It’s TC industries, it’s AV Dawson, wagon drivers, train drivers so it’ll affect everyone. It’s a roll on thing isn’t it?

– Sue Sweeney