DISPUTE has erupted over claims Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson “shouted” and tried to throw papers at Thai bank representatives in heated negotiations over former steelworks land. 

Efforts to strike a deal with three Thai banks to buy back a stretch of the former Redcar steelworks have come to nought in the past two years. 

Witness statements and evidence ahead of next week’s compulsory purchase order (CPO) proceedings have revealed details of terse exchanges – with claims Boro's owner was at the centre of unrest. 

Mr Gibson, who is vice-chairman of South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) board, attended a meeting with representatives of the three banks and SSI in March last year. 

Evidence offered up by Simon Melhuish-Hancock, on behalf of the banks and SSI, showed the delegation had “travelled 6,000 miles” for negotiations about valuations of the land. 

The Northern Echo: The former SSI works in Redcar. Picture: Stuart Boulton.The former SSI works in Redcar. Picture: Stuart Boulton.

But his witness statement told a story of frayed tempers.

Ms Melhuish-Hancock added: “Unfortunately, the Thai banks were not able to state their position with regard to the valuation principles, let alone give the development corporation any indication of the price the Thai banks were seeking. 

“Almost as soon as the meeting opened, the representatives of the Thai banks were shouted at by Mr Steve Gibson, a director of the development corporation, stating that “… I will not recognise the agenda. This meeting will not last five minutes …”, before trying to throw the agenda across the table at the Thai banks’ representatives. 

“The development corporation’s team then 12 walked out of the meeting after less than half an hour in the meeting room.”

The account has been disputed by the STDC.

What’s the background?

Three Thai banks hold the former SSI steelworks site.

SSI bought the steelworks site for £800m – but the company went into liquidation with the loss of more than 2,500 jobs in 2015. 

The STDC has a masterplan to create more than 20,000 jobs on the industrial 4,500 acre site south of the Tees. 

It acquired 1,420 acres of land south of the river from Tata last year for £11.5m.

But the separate 870-acre former steelworks site is needed to realise its wider regenerations ambitions. 

And this land is held by the trio banks. 

Relations and negotiations have been strained between the development corporation and those holding the site. 

Delegations have flown back and forth between the UK and Thailand in the past two years.

A deal in principle to buy the land was struck in May 2018 but this fell away.

Mr Melhuish-Hancock’s statement added representatives of the banks were “very offended” by the behaviour at the meeting last March.

He added: “They took the view that there was little point in offering to make another long and expensive journey, only for that behaviour to be repeated and for there to be no meaningful negotiations.”

STDC hits back

The development corporation has hit back at the account offered. 

STDC chief executive David Allison said he was at the meeting – where it was expected discussions would focus on land studies carried out by the banks and SSI.

However, he said the banks put forward an alternative agenda which “focussed on the details and perceived shortcomings” of the STDC’s plans “rather than seeking to take forward negotiations”.

Mr Allison added this caused “disbelief” and “considerable frustration” among the development corporation’s ranks.

The chief executive said: “This led to Steve Gibson, non-executive director of STDC, to express his considerable frustration and to reject the proposed agenda. 

“He did not shout or “throw” the agenda at the Thai Banks representatives. 

“Given the unwillingness of SSI or the Thai Banks to outline their requirements – or to offer an alternative proposal and hence with no prospect of any strategic progress – the STDC felt they had no alternative other than to bring the meeting to a premature conclusion.”

At the time, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who is also chairman of the STDC, criticised the banks in signing off the compulsory purchase. 

He said: “Having met the Thai banks last Friday (March 29, 2019) we left them under no illusion that there is growing anger at the way in which they have approached the negotiations.

“Following that meeting it was clear to me that the Thai banks are not playing ball, so exercising the powers handed to us by parliament to ensure local people are back in control of the entire site is essential.”

Hearings for the CPO – the legal instrument which allows bodies to obtain land or property without the consent of an owner – are due to begin on the former steelworks site next Tuesday (February 11).