PRIME Minister Tony Blair is stepping into a cement factory closure row by meeting union leaders this week.

Campaigners trying to save 147 jobs at Lafarge UK's Blue Circle works at Eastgate, County Durham, hope Mr Blair's intervention will open the door to talks over the sale of the plant as a going concern.

Meanwhile, Greek cement manufacturer Titan has ruled out a bid for the plant, despite having hit the acquisition trail in recent months.

There has been speculation that an eastern European cement business was keen to buy the Weardale works, despite Lafarge repeatedly claiming it is not for sale.

The Greek company, based in Athens, already imports cement into the UK through Hull.

Spokesman Spyros Xenos told The Northern Echo: "We are not interested in a UK acquisition at this time.

"There might be some interest in the plant from other European companies, but it isn't coming from us, despite our recent acquisitions.

"We are happy to import cement into the UK through our Hull terminal."

Titan recently acquired the Kosjeric Cement Company in Serbia, and also has operations in the US, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Egypt.

Workers have appealed to Mr Blair after company bosses blocked attempts to broker two possible rescue packages by shunning a move to open negotiations. At the talks with workers and GMB union representatives will be Durham County Council chief executive Kingsley Smith, who claims there is still at least one European cement company still interested in breaking into the UK market.

Lafarge has also shunned talks with another potential buyer, Weardale haulage boss Angus Ward.

GMB regional organiser Derek Cattell approached Mr Blair after meeting many of Blue Circle's 147-strong workforce last week. He and Weardale county councillor John Shuttleworth are investigating whether UK or European competition laws are being breached by the firm, which blames over-production for the closure decision.

Mr Cattell said: "We are still outraged at the decision not to sell the works as a going concern. We think it should be of interest to the Prime Minister because it raises the question of competition.

"Blue Circle has 50 per cent of the UK market in cement manufacture. Our view is that selling off a single site such as Weardale to a competitor and hopefully save the Weardale jobs doesn't compromise Blue Circle's domination of the market."

Durham County Council leader Ken Manton said Mr Blair's readiness to meet with workers leaders confirmed the gravity of the situation.