‘RIGHT now we are in crisis – there is a bloody long road ahead, but we will get there.”

That was how Redcar steelworks boss Cornelius Louwrens described the parlous state of his business in January 2015.

When Business Minister Anna Soubry arrived on Teesside ten months later – too late to do anything meaningful that might save 170 years of iron and steel making – she spoke of her shock that SSI was in such trouble.

“We only know what people tell us. There are a lot of businesses in Britain and we can’t be expected to know what is going on in all of them,” said the minister, who made all of the right noises, but it quickly became apparent she had been sent to Teesside to protect the Government from accusations it had abandoned the region, rather than rescue thousands of jobs.

You would have thought that the North-East’s last remaining steel plant, which hit the headlines last year for defaulting on a £10m payment to the local council, would have attracted the attention of Whitehall before it was too late.

Ms Soubry cannot have been a regular reader of The Northern Echo because ever since the works returned to production in April 2012 we had reported that this was a business struggling desperately to stay afloat.

It was an open secret that SSI UK rarely paid its bills on time and owed some suppliers millions of pounds. You didn’t have to rely on rumours. Its woes were public knowledge. The business had reported heavy losses in each of its annual results. It is understood that when it was liquidated the steel firm owed North–East companies about £50m as part of UK debts totalling more than £120m. Electricity supplier EDF and Durham City-based Northumbrian Water both threatened to disconnect supplies to parts of the Redcar site as SSI repeatedly defaulted on payment plans.

Suppliers put up with this behaviour largely because people across the region, the Echo included, were desperate for SSI to succeed.

The goodwill in the local community to keep iron and steelmaking going was remarkable and something that SSI’s Thai owners were more than happy to exploit to buy themselves time as global steel prices buckled under the weight of cheap exports from Asia and Russia.

The culture of stretching the patience of suppliers to breaking point of was managed by the Thai owners, while North-East bosses got on with running the plant.

One of the great tragedies of SSI’s demise is that the operational side of the business – the production of coke, iron, steel and its shipping from Teesport – performed well. They just didn’t make a profit. Production records were set, and the plant supported more than 2,000 direct jobs, as well as apprentices and graduates. There was so much that was good and worth preserving about the plant and its surrounding infrastructure, but when SSI went under no one wanted to take the blame.

David Cameron, who had earlier pledged his Government “will do all that we can to keep steelmaking in Redcar”, said he was hamstrung by EU competition law.

SSI president Win Viriyaprapaikit was vilified for ignoring requests to front up to his Redcar staff and tell them what was going on. His silence added to the frustration for workers after production was suspended in September. But he had bought and invested heavily in the plant when no one else wanted it and with a bit more luck and deeper pockets he could have made it a success.

Cut price exports from China and a mounting cashflow crisis led to the firm’s Thai banks calling in their loans and the plant was liquidated in November. When the official receiver later allowed the coke ovens to burn out any feint hopes of a rescue were extinguished.

The Government announced an £80m crisis fund which in truth was worth about £50m once statutory redundancy pay had been deducted.

Workers then faced a bitter struggle for backdated pay and pensions contributions. The extent of the cash crisis was laid bare when it emerged that SSI hadn’t been able to pay for ink cartridges to print visitor passes on the reception desk nor kept up workers’ insurance payments. This was a sad and scandalous way for things to end.

Teesside steel was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the new Wembley Stadium, Canary Wharf and New York’s Ground Zero site. It was an industry with a glorious past but no future.


January: Plant bosses warn of a steel crisis and admit SSI will struggle to make profit this year.

February: PD Ports signs a seven year deal for the handling of steel slabs through Teesport.

April: SSI UK staff pay and bonus deal is put on hold as Cornelius Louwrens, chief operations officer, notes a “traumatic fall” in steel prices.

July: SSI and BOC agree a 15-year gas supply deal.

August: SSI tries to renegotiate bank loans. The Northern Echo starts Save Our Steel campaign.

September 17: MP James Wharton calls an emergency steel debate in Parliament “showboating” by Labour.

September 18: Steel production is halted and South Bank Coke Ovens shut down.

September 27: Boro FC players wear T-shirts as fans back the Save our Steel campaign.

September 28: Plant is mothballed, 1,700 workers face redundancy. Redundant steelworker Brian Dennis tells the Labour Party Conference: “Only the government can save us now.”

October 1: Rescue bid to keep the coke ovens burning led by coal firm Hargreaves is revealed.“I fear the plant will keel over and die if we don’t do something in the next few days,” says Redcar MP Anna Turley.

October 2: SSI UK is liquidated.

October 13: Receiver confirms Redcar Coke Ovens will shut ending any hopes of a last ditch reprieve.

October 19: Boro chairman Steve Gibson describes MP James Wharton an “absolute clown” over his handling of SSI.