THE fires of Redcar’s coke ovens are still burning as talks continue to keep Teesside’s industrial flames alight.

Eleventh-hour negotiations between Hargreaves Services and the official receiver of Redcar’s closed steelworks took place tonight (Monday, October 6), in a bid to save hundreds of jobs.

The 162 ovens are believed to be close to burning out, and The Northern Echo understands they are being run at reduced strength with cheaper fuel, to make remaining supplies last longer.

However, if nothing is done, they will go out and may never work again, and Esh Winning-based Hargreaves, which supplied coke for SSI UK’s Redcar blast furnace, yesterday warned it will immediately wind down operations at the former steelmaker’s site, unless a deal can be struck.

According to the Government’s Insolvency Service, about 600 workers are still employed to oversee the ovens, with Hargreaves’ proposals, first revealed by The Northern Echo last week, centring upon keeping the ovens on as a commercially viable, stand-alone operation.

Any such move would preserve jobs and could throw a potential lifeline to the future of the steelworks, meaning it can be properly mothballed.

Last night, the Insolvency Service confirmed the coke ovens were still burning, with a spokesman saying he expected them to still be on tomorrow morning. (Tuesday, October 7)

He added: “The official receiver is continuing to establish the affairs of the company and discussing the future use of its assets with interested parties.

“Some 650 staff were retained over the weekend to operate the Redcar Coke Ovens and manage the site in a safe manner.

“Staffing requirements are being kept under daily review and the ovens continue to be maintained.”

Hargreaves says SSI’s collapse into liquidation leaves it with excess coal and coke stocks of about £14m, though it says that will be carefully managed and turned into cash in the next year.

Bosses added they are willing to support “any viable plan” to prevent the coke ovens from being ruined, but will stop operations immediately if a plan fails to materialise.

In a statement, led by chief executive Gordon Banham, the firm said: “We have committed significant effort, credit lines, services and expertise to support the operation at Redcar.

“The company is willing to support any viable plan to prevent the coke ovens from being destroyed.

“However, in the absence of such a plan being developed and implemented, we have prepared plans to wind down operations on site with immediate effect.”

Meanwhile, the emotional fall-out of SSI UK’s collapse continues, with staff telling The Northern Echo they are unsure what is happening.

Some turned up for work yesterday morning, only be to be turned away, while some contractors have not been paid for seven weeks, and others were told not to go into work by text message.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, visited workers at Redcar earlier today (Monday, October 5) and said the UK’s economy would have a huge gap regionally, if manufacturing, and the steel sector, was not maintained.

He said: “We can’t have an economy dependent on the finance sector.

“If you haven’t got a manufacturing base we will continue with gross levels of inequality.”

Mr McDonnell was joined by shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle, who met workers at a purpose-built youth centre near the closed steelworks.

Ms Eagle added: “This is the second most efficient blast furnace in Europe and if we mothball it, it has to be done properly.

“Clearly the Government have washed their hands of this and written off Redcar as a steelmaking town.

“It seems mad to just leave these steelworks without mothballing them.

“If they are not mothballed they will be destroyed and there will be a clean-up cost of billions here - and that liability will fall to the Government.

“It is a fool's economy not to look at that.”