Thirty-five years after the steelworks closure, Tony Kearney finds Consett a town transformed.

THEY are proud of their heritage in Consett.

Sympathy and survival: Consett's message for the Redcar steelmen

More than 35 years after the last steel was tapped, references to the town’s industrial history are everywhere: rusting upturned ladles stand at the edge of the old site; sculptures mark the entrance to the new play park and line the route of the coast-to-coast cycleway; a Facebook group dedicated to Consett’s heritage has more than 8,000 members.

The surviving steelworkers are old men now, even the teenage apprentices when The Company closed in 1980 are now in their mid-50s, and the town is a different place to the one they grew up in.

Much of the early regeneration effort focussed on attracting a big employer, such as a Nissan, but none could be enticed to relocate to a town 15 miles from the nearest motorway, particularly after the rail link which fed the steelworks was torn up in 1984.

As time wore on, Government regeneration money was switched to former mining areas and European grants were diverted to accession countries.

Some start-up companies thrived, famously the Phileas Fogg crisp factory, founded in 1982 by ex-steelworkers which came to symbolise the town’s hopes of revival with its memorable Consett Airport adverts, but by 1990, the district’s population had fallen by more than 20,000 people.

Cllr Alex Watson, then leader of Derwentside District Council, said: “We had to do something radical to turn the situation around and the number one priority was job creation.

“We realised that we had to invest in small companies. Indigenous companies are critical. They don’t always need a lot of money, but they need help and assistance”.

There was a greater emphasis on home-grown companies, early investment in IT and a planning regime friendly to job creation, while the council and private developers formed the Project Genesis trust to redevelop the steelworks site.

The most obvious change was a phenomenal house-building programme, with upmarket homes going up on almost every scrap of land. With the steelworks and its notorious pollution gone, a town set in pleasant countryside about half an hour’s commute from Tyneside and Durham became an attractive proposition for homebuyers.

Upmarket housing and factory units nibbled round the edges of the cleared steelworks site, including the Hownsgill Industrial Estate, home to the 500-job ready meals manufacturer International Cuisine, now the town’s biggest employer. More recently, major retailers have moved in and the site which once made steel for Blackpool Tower and Britain’s nuclear submarines is now home to rival Tesco and Morrisons stores, a string of high street outlets and fast food giants.

Around £200m has been invested into the Genesis site, including 1500 homes. Sports Direct will open later this month and plans for a solar farm and eight new industrial units are in the pipeline, although 35 years after the Company closed around 300 acres of the 700-acre site have been developed.

The population soared to 39,000, higher than it was in the days of steel, and unemployment plummeted. In August, only 420 people were in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance – an official unemployment rate of 1.7 per cent, significantly lower than the rest of County Durham. The wider claimant count of people receiving out-of-work benefits was 6.3 per cent, half the County Durham average, although it does not include people receiving disability benefits which is likely to be significant given the town’s industrial legacy.

Consett has been portrayed as a town which suffered a devastating blow in 1980 and made a steady and gradual recovery, but the truth is less straightforward. In 1998, the Amoco Fabrics factory closed with the loss of 260 jobs. The Pimpernel tablemat factory, which employed 300 at its height, scaled back and then closed in 2006. Earlier this year, the KP Snacks crisp factory, which had acquired the flagship Phileas Fogg brand, closed with the loss of 100 jobs.

Public sector jobs were also squeezed: Shotley Bridge Hospital was downgraded with jobs and services transferred to Durham, while council posts were also relocated to Durham after the abolition of Derwentside District Council in 2009.

Of the 16,000 people in Consett who work for a living, the majority are now commuters, a transformation unthinkable during the 1980s when workers travelled from far and wide to earn their living in the steelworks. Just under 60 per cent of the workforce take to the roads each morning to work in Tyneside or Durham.

Despite the improvements, 18.8 per cent of Consett’s population are still classed, according to Government figures, as living in a deprived area.

Kath Welford volunteers at the town’s Food4U foodbank, which last month fed 83 adults and 55 children. Most, she says, need help as a result of a crisis such as being thrown out of their home or benefit sanctions, but a growing minority are workers on zero-hours contracts who can’t make ends meet. The 62-year-old, whose husband was made redundant when the steelworks closed, said: “It is quite a vibrant town now, but a lot of people work outside town and a lot of the jobs which are here certainly don’t pay equivalent wages to what the steelworks paid”.

Former steelworker Billy Robson, now chief executive of Consett YMCA, said: “I look at Consett now and yes we haven’t got the big economy and we haven’t got the big wages which we used to have, but things are OK and we’re all healthy. There’s still unemployment, but we’ve just got to get on with it”.

Tomorrow – the view from Steel Street