STEEL maker Corus last night delivered a devastating snub to thousands of workers and their families by refusing to attend a crucial summit to discuss the future of the industry.

The Anglo-Dutch producer was offered a seat at the special steel summit alongside union leaders, politicians and senior business people from the North-East.

The event was organised following Corus's announcement last month that it no longer needed Teesside-produced steel for internal use.

The company was accused at the time of sounding a death knell for steel-making in the region by forcing it to compete on the international open market against cheap producers in Russia, China and Brazil.

The summit, taking place at the Redcar Bowl tomorrow, was seen as an opportunity for the Teesside-arm of the company to establish how it will handle its new role, effectively as a separate entity from mainstream Corus productions.

But, with fewer than 48 hours to go to the event, the company told The Northern Echo: "We will not be attending the steel summit."

Another notable absentee will be Dr John Bridge, chairman of regional development agency One NorthEast.

As chairman of the Steel Taskforce, set up in the wake of massive job losses at Corus Teesside two years ago, Dr Bridge would have been an influential figure at the summit.

But a One NorthEast spokeswoman said a meeting of the full board of the agency decided that former Redcar and Cleveland council leader Dave Walsh would be present instead.

Major figures attending Sunday's rally, organised by the Evening Gazette, last night insisted that it was not too late for Corus to change its mind.

Vera Baird, MP for Redcar, said: "They have made an announcement more important to the people here than the war on Iraq, so I cannot believe they have had a chance to explain but will not take it."

Mr Walsh, a former steelworker, said: "We fully expect someone to be there. It is important that they meet with the local community."

Alistair Arkley, chairman of Tees Valley Partnership, accused Corus of lacking the nerve to face its critics.

"I am not surprised but I am disappointed that Corus is not brave enough to face up to the realities of its decision and to face up to the community that has served it so well for so many years," he said.

And he demanded to know when the company would make itself accountable for the new policy.

Tony Poynter, chairman of the Teesside works multi-union steel committee, said: "Corus has missed a gold opportunity to put across to the community the responsibility they have for this area. They are a major employer.

"The workforce and community will think they could not be bothered and have got something to hide."

The announcement came on the day that new chief executive Phillipe Varin toured the Teesside operations. Today also marks the day chairman Sir Brian Moffat leaves the company.

Mr Varin met union leaders and emphasised that an open and ongoing involvement of the trade unions, management, local business, politicians and community leaders was essential to secure a successful future for Teesside Cast Products.

He added that Corus would listen carefully and take note of comments made by participants attending the steel summit