Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen writes exclusively for BUSINESSiQ about the challenging journey to a £400m investment


Last week piling rigs slowly crawled across a huge flat plateau at the Teesworks site in Redcar.

The hundreds of tonnes of machinery moving into position marked a significant moment in the history of the former Redcar steelworks which towered over the local landscape, and provided thousands of jobs for generations of local workers.

The journey to this moment began in October 2015 when our steelworks fell into liquidation, the gas was turned off to the blast furnace and 1,700 steelworkers left the site for the last time. This was catastrophic for Teesside and a situation that simply had to be made right.

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Fast forward seven years, the 4,500 acres of land that was once home to the Redcar steelworks is being reborn as the UK largest industrial zone and home to the UK’s biggest and first operational freeport.

Rising from the newly redeveloped plateau will be SeAH Wind’s mammoth state-of-the-art monopile factory. Covering 1.13 million square feet, the facility will be the biggest monopile manufacturing factory in the world, and at £400m it will also be the South Korean firm's biggest international investment.

Most importantly, in total, the project will create 2,250 good-quality, well paid jobs for local workers, including 750 highly skilled jobs when the site is fully operational in just two years. The 120-metre long, 3,000 tonne structures that form the foundations of offshore wind turbines begin rolling off the production line in 2024.

Getting to this point though has not been an easy, or a straightforward journey. It’s taken hundreds of people and tens of thousands of hours.

The Northern Echo: President & CEO of SeAH Steel Holdings Joonsung Lee at the SeAH launchPresident & CEO of SeAH Steel Holdings Joonsung Lee at the SeAH launch

When we launched the South Tees Development Corporation in 2015, the first such redevelopment organisation to be set up outside of Greater London, and then unveiled our twenty-year masterplan two years after the closure, I was clear that this was just the beginning.

Before a single spade could go into the ground, land belonging to over 100 landowners needed to be consolidated under one ownership. So began a three-year battle with SSI and the three Thai banks; an uncountable number of sleepless nights and late meetings fuelled by pizzas and chocolate followed. Endless meetings with lawyers; QCs; planning experts; Government ministers and Prime Ministers over the issue became the norm.

A trip to Thailand to negotiate directly with the Thai banks, which made such an extraordinarily bad bet on SSI when they lent them £800m, turned out to be a waste of time when they still wanted to hold Teesside to ransom. Something which I would never accept.

Then in April 2020, after a herculean effort by so many people and in the shadow of the South Bank coke ovens, it was announced that we had won our Compulsory Purchase hearing. Finally, after five long years we had control of the land and could now crack on and start to breathe new life into the site.

The Northern Echo: The piledriver moves in at the Teesworks siteThe piledriver moves in at the Teesworks site

Having been frustrated for so long, it was critical that we redoubled our efforts and got back to work. Alongside our fantastic private sector joint venture partners, we hit the ground running, demolishing the old steelmaking assets to make the site investor ready.

Now, almost two years to the day since we launched Teesworks the rest of the site will be down, as steel for SeAH Wind’s world-beating factory goes up.

To deliver regeneration on this scale on a site like Teesworks you have to live and breathe it. That’s why every Saturday, after a bacon sarnie and a tea, I’m onsite driving around seeing what work has been completed and what needs to be done. Across the site, hundreds of men and women are working their socks off to get the job done, and I’m proud that a large number of those working onsite are former steelworkers attracted home because they are excited about that we are doing.

To get the SeAH site construction ready, local firm, Halls Construction, has had to move and process more than 2.5million tonnes of material. They’ve worked through wind, rain, and snow and through a global pandemic without missing a milestone so we could get to this stage.

It’s no secret that this project was once earmarked for Hull, but we’ve got on and moved quickly to develop the site and we are now reaping the rewards. Not only did we get the massive site ready for construction, we also secured £107m from the British infrastructure Bank to get cracking on our 1km long heavy lift South Bank Quay. I am extremely proud of this as attracting this project is so significant for the economy of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The Northern Echo: Demolition work at the former steelworks siteDemolition work at the former steelworks site

International investment is critical to the advancement of our area and I’ve always said that this doesn’t come on a bus, it comes through an airport terminal, and the SeAH investment is a prime example of this. Despite being nearly 5,500 miles away from South Korea, Teesside International Airport, and our global connectivity via Amsterdam, played a critical part in securing this £400million investment decision. Without our airport this project simply would have gone elsewhere. This is a fact.

In the last two years since we secured all of the land we’ve made huge progress, from SeAH Wind, to Net Zero Teesside to Circular Fuels we are delivering investment and jobs in the cleaner, healthier and safter industries of tomorrow – and we are delivering them now.

Over the years the flak from the detractors and the sniping from the sidelines, from those who have nothing better to do than talk down Teesside for their own cynical and destructive purposes, has been frustrating.

For me Teesworks is not political - it is about local people and the success of our area and I would hope that everyone can now get behind what is now being achieved on the site.

I recognise that talk is cheap but now here we are with spades in the ground and hundreds of real jobs being delivered.

Like all Teessiders, I will never forget the sight of a hard hat resting against the fence outsider the steelworks, placed there by a worker as he left the works for the last time. Iron and steelmaking will forever be in the blood of every Teessider, but nearly seven years on from our region’s darkest day and with construction about to get underway at Teesworks the brighter futures for generations to come are now within touching distance.