Margaret Thatcher cut a swathe of destruction through the traditional industries of the North-East. Then, on an old steelworks site during the autumn of 1987, she sowed the seeds of a new beginning

SHE stalked off into the wastelands clutching her famous black handbag, stiletto heels pricking Teesside’s crumbling concrete, her leader’s gaze contemplating a rump of derelict buildings surrounded by acres of weeds.

As far as many in the North-East were concerned, that walk in the wilderness, in September 1987, was a metaphor for Thatcherism, with its enduring image of the Iron Lady striding impeccably through the ruins of the heavy industry she had swept away.

But Margaret had come to sow the seeds of renewal. If her policies had consigned out-dated, lame-duck industries to the nostalgia books, and privatisation and share ownership had honed the remaining few into profitable concerns, then it was all part of the broader plan to renew and reinvent a country brought down by trade unionism and socialist policies – or so she insisted on telling everyone.

“We should back the workers, not the shirkers,” was one of the phrases resonant of the Thatcher years, which found favour, perhaps, with the young City types exploiting a booming economy, but not necessarily with those who had fought for jobs – literally – and had the bruises and criminal records to prove it.

“Pennies do not fall from heaven – they must be earned down here on earth,” while more grocer’s daughter than economist, this was another phrase born of her non-interventionist idealism.

But on that September day on Teesside she revealed to the North-East that there was a new way forward for the inner-city wastelands and regions hit by the demise of traditional industry. The new way was “regeneration”, another word to add to the Thatcher lexicon.

By September 1987, the North-East had changed unrecognisably from the North-East of 1979.

The region’s British Steel workforce had been cut from 33,000 to about 6,500, with Consett and Teesside taking the brunt of the collapse.

At the start of the coal strike, 22,000 men were employed at 17 North-East pits, but as the decade drew to a close there were only 9,500 men at seven pits.

But the biggest collapse was to be sustained by the shipbuilding industry, the lifeblood of the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees. On Teesside, the Smith’s Dock yard had closed in February with the loss of 1,300 jobs. In 1988, the Government’s controversial decision to close North-East Shipbuilders, in Sunderland, brought shipbuilding to an end on Wearside.

In 1977, 27,000 people had been employed in the industry, but by 1990 the only yard surviving in the region was Swan Hunter, on Tyneside, and with a dwindling order book.

The painful industrial restructuring during the Eighties was particularly hard to swallow, having followed a period of employment growth throughout much of the Seventies under Labour.

Between 1971 and 1979, the North gained 56,000 jobs.

Between 1979 and 1990, the North lost 248,211 jobs.

Maggie would change all that.

BENEATH the famous picture of her standing in the wastelands of Middlesbrough’s vanished Britannia Steelworks, The Northern Echo reported: “The Prime Minister launched her inner-city offensive on Teesside yesterday with the promise of 1,000 new jobs.

“Margaret Thatcher came to the region with a message of hope – but she said she had no magic wand to rid the region of its problems.

“But as well as announcements of new ventures, there were also protests, and Mrs Thatcher left Teesside in no doubt that many of her policies remain unpopular here.”

Mrs Thatcher and the newly formed Teesside Urban Development Corporation announced new jobs created by companies such as British Telecom, Northern Ocean Services, Nissan and others, as well as schemes that would lead eventually to the creation of the Tees Barrage, Teesside Park retail centre, and the regeneration of Hartlepool marina.

It was the start of the conversion of the North-East from industrial heartland to a more diverse economy where small businesses began to flourish and new industries soaked up the unemployed.

“Where there is iron, may we bring call centres; where there is coal, may we bring retail outlets; where there is shipbuilding, may we bring leisure parks” may not have been the new mantra, but Mrs Thatcher certainly set the North-East on a new course which boosted the economy, created work, social and leisure opportunities, and made the region less dependent on the old industries that had blighted the landscape and the health of millions.

In short, she transformed the region into a vibrant, forward-looking, entrepreneurial area with high-tech industries, many of them financed with Japanese money.

From the sunset of King Coal, to the sunrise of a new economic dawn, Margaret Thatcher had sown the seeds of a new beginning with a walk in the wilderness.