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The start of June brought with it the launch of Lord Heseltine’s report responding to the closure of SSI’s steel plant in Teesside. There is much to commend in the report. But a central recommendation strongly echoes the previous government-led attempt to revive Teesside, and there is a risk that this will lead to a repeat of the mistakes of the past.
One of the report’s main recommendations is the creation of the South Tees Development Corporation, with the aim of finding an alternative use for the site of the steel plant. This may sound familiar. Replace the words South Tees with Teesside and you have the name of the body set up by the Thatcher Government, in which Lord Heseltine was the chief architect of urban policy, almost 30 years ago.
One of the Corporation’s achievements was to bring new development to the site of a former engineering works, which was the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s famous ‘Walk in the Wilderness’ photograph. The result was the creation of Teesside Park – an out-of-town retail park – and Teesdale Park – a business park.
As our recent paper on the Tees Valley economy showed, this may have undermined the wider Tees Valley economy, rather than supporting it. Many more highly-paid, ‘knowledge-based’ services jobs are increasingly concentrating in city centre locations because of the benefits that density brings to their working lives. One of the persistent weaknesses of the Tees Valley economy is that, unlike other, more successful cities, Middlesbrough’s city centre has struggled to attract high-paid, high-skilled services jobs. This is reflected in the low average wages on offer in the area.
Yet the determination to find another use for the engineering works in the late 80s meant that political attention and public money was focused on building office and retail space in a peripheral location, rather than dealing with the challenges that the city centre faced. Not only did this divert funds away from dealing with these challenges, but it is likely to have subsequently compounded them by pulling business demand away from the city centre too.
In any approach to city development it must be recognised that as the structure of the economy changes, the demand for different types of land will change as well. Just because economic activity has occurred on a specific site in the past doesn’t mean that it should continue to do so in the future. And this is the key insight that the creation of the South Tees Development Corporation looks set to overlook.
If investment can be secured for the former SSI site, then of course it should be pursued. But it won’t help the Tees Valley area to adapt to the requirements of the 21st century economy, with the implication being that the area will continue to struggle to attract investment that will improve the employment opportunities of its residents. Because of this, the redevelopment of the site should not be done in absence of a wider understanding about where the highly skilled, high paying service firms that the Tees Valley lacks increasingly want to go.
The benefit of the new Metro Mayor, who will be installed next year and whose priorities we discussed in our Teesside event last week, is that he or she will be able to take a city region-wide perspective on where to invest. A big part of this will be about addressing the skills and transport needs of the area, as highlighted both in our recent polling and in Heseltine’s report. And when it comes to new development, if the area is to see a shift in the types of jobs that it has, then there needs to be a sharp focus on reversing the fortunes of Middlesbrough city centre.
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