"I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill."
– Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe, 1981
“Never fallen off a big chimney, you only fall off one of them once, like”
– Fred Dibnah
It’s nearly twenty past midnight. It’s quiet and dark.
A crack and a rumble, an explosion.
This isn’t the sound of terrorism so much as it is the theme tune of vandalism.
Fred is perched on a plank at the top. The wind is howling.
The plank is secured by one bar of scaffolding and two ropes. It swings slightly as he moves. He describes this staging as a work of art.
Fred doesn’t appear to be attached to anything. There is no safety harness visible. He has a rather scruffy roll up hanging out of the side of his mouth as he works.
He was born for this. Perhaps not exactly this, but being born in Bolton at the point of industrial decline sets the ideal conditions for creating a Fred Dibnah. At first he was employed as a steeplejack. A man who would climb these towers, these monuments to industry, in order to repair them.
And now here he is. It is the 1970s and Fred is dismantling a chimney, brick by brick.
From up here you can see across the densely packed Northern town. You can see the rows of terraced houses, smoke rising gently from their tiny chimneys, the spires and steeples, and of course all the other monuments to industry that stretch up to the sky.
They would normally just blow it up, of course, but as with many structures built during the industrial revolution, the houses are too close. It would be too risky, too potentially costly.
And so Fred has been given £7,000 to dismantle this chimney a blackened brick at a time. Each one thrown into the gaping maw of the chimney and sliding out of the hole at the base like a strange helter skelter.
“If people want to stand in the way of jobs and investment then they should leave Teesside because I’m not going to be apologetic for wanting to deliver a bright future for local people.”
– Ben Houchen, Sunday 19 September, 2021
And now it is Sunday. It is the 9th of May and it is 2004.
It is six months before Fred Dibnah dies. However, right now he is stood at the foot of a chimney.
We are in Royton, Oldham, and this is the Park Mill.
This will be the last demolition of Fred Dibnah, his 90th chimney.
An audience has gathered at the site, stood a little way back from where Fred stands. There are others across the town, standing in their gardens or on the streets, looking down the valley towards the Mill.
A fire is lit.
Fred was a big fan of this method. No explosives were needed. Just a few bricks removed and trussed with wood before a fire is set. When the fire burns the wooden truss the chimney collapses in on itself.
Over his career Fred has encountered many people that don’t trust this method. It’s not predictable, they would argue, yet Fred trusted it.
A slight creak and the chimney begins to collapse. As it does people standing near Fred get nervous, and the film of the event shows them starting to jog away as the bricks rush down.
Fred doesn’t flinch. He stands perfectly still as the bricks crash in front of him, getting closer, but never reaching him.
It is now nearly 20 years later. The chimney is gone. Fred is gone. The Mill is gone.
There is now a housing estate.
Thompsons of Prudhoe were ultimately responsible for the demolition at twenty past midnight on the 19th September, 2021.
The iconic Dorman Long Tower of the former Redcar Steelworks fell with the percussive sound of an explosive demolition. A series of ten controlled explosions.
As one of her first acts as the new culture secretary, Nadine Dorries overturned a decision by Historic England to grade II list the structure.
Historic England argued that the people of the North East saw this tower as an iconic symbol of their industrial heritage. That the people saw this as belonging to them and their culture.
A supposedly independent report by government employed engineers, Atkins, suggested that the structure would need nearly £8 million pounds to secure and maintain.
For scale, the recent facelift to Big Ben in London cost the public nearly ten times as much, at £79.9 million. The proposed Garden Bridge project in London would cost £200 million.
For more scale, Unboxed Festival, previously Festival UK* 22, formerly the Festival of Britain, formerly the Brexit Festival, cost £120 million for just a reported 238,000 visitors. One exhibition, Sea Monster, featured a reclaimed North Sea oil rig platform being installed, temporarily, in Weston-Super-Mare at a cost of more than £10.5 million.
It’s important to note that not every resident was against the demolition. Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen supported Nadine’s decision, saying:
“Approving our appeal was the first decision of the new Secretary of State, this goes to show just how important the successful redevelopment of the Redcar former steelworks site is to everyone in government.”
The South Tees Development Corporation, chaired by Houchen, had to make a compulsory purchase order to acquire the former steelworks, a move that was contested by the owners, Sahaviriya Steel Industries Sahaviriya Steel Industries.
The plan is to turn the area into a Freeport, However, a move that has been described as 'speculative' by a member of the management board
Following the listing of Dorman Long as a grade II historic building, Ben Houchen accused Historic England of using a junior member of staff, who had acted without the permission of senior managers, to issue the listing.
Historic England responded publicly by denying this and issuing the following statement:
"The mayor’s statement is incorrect – the listing was not a mistake. Historic England advised DCMS to list the site. Following a site visit, our advice to list the site remained the same"
The Tories have had a fascination with the notion of freeports for decades now.
At the core the idea is simple. Areas of the UK are designated as freeports where the usual rules of tax and workers rights laws don’t apply. The idea being that this will encourage greater investment in these areas and perhaps lift them out of poverty through job provision and infrastructure development.
Opponents like to point out that maybe freeports are not about helping the workers and residents out of poverty so much as it is about exploiting them by removing many of the laws that have been instituted to protect them from just that.
Things like working time directives, for example. Or minimum wages.
And they also like to point out that the lack of tax being paid in these areas will allow large corporations to exploit the UK without contributing monetarily.
The idea first appeared in the Tory manifesto in 1983 under ‘The Challenge of Our Times’ as a way to combat declining economies in post-industrial areas. Several freeports were introduced but these licences were not renewed in 2012 after the efficacy of freeports was doubted.
In 2021, Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor of the Tory party, re-introduced the idea through the proposed creation of eight new freeports.
They are East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber region, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.
Richard Oaster was somewhat of a contradiction. He was a Tory radical.
On one hand he fought against Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary reform, but on the other he was an abolitionist and a major voice in workplace reform. He earned the nickname, ‘The Factory King’ because of his support of limiting the workday to just ten hours.
A commemorative plaque in Leeds parish church reads:
"Moved by pity and indignation at the long hours worked by young children in factories, he devoted his life to their emancipation, and was a tireless champion of the Ten Hours Factory Bill"
He described himself as an ‘ultra-Tory’ and as a ‘King and Country’ politician. However, he also said something that highlights a perpetual struggle:
“The great mistake in the minds of those raised above the working class is, that they think the people want plunder and anarchy. I know they want no such thing – they want peace and rest – and their rights. They want to be able to go out in a morning, get a good day's work done, and come home with a fair remuneration…”
He didn’t see the poor as victims of their own disposition, rather he saw them as victims of a capitalist system that sought to render them as a resource to be exploited.
He referenced what we now call capitalism as ‘the political economy’.
Way back in 2016, a rising Tory MP called Rishi Sunak issued a report called ‘The Freeports Opportunity’ in response to a vote that the UK would be leaving the EU:
“extensive and ambitious network of UK Free Ports. … These would not only provide domestic manufacturers with a wealth of tangible benefits, but also send a clear message to international markets that Britain’s new global role will be open, innovative, and outward looking. It is therefore imperative that, if the recommendations of this report are to be implemented, the Government acts to legislate in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s departure from the [European Union].”
Sunak called for the UK to emulate over 135 places across the globe that have used them, under various names such as ‘freeports’, ‘free trade zones’ (FTZ), and ‘special economic zones’ (SEZ), particularly places like South East Asia and China where these zones have become synonymous with the exploitation of the working class.
An early backer of Sunak’s proposal was theLabour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, who described freeports as “recognised around the world as playing a major role in retaining, reshoring and growing domestic manufacturing activity and boosting trade.”
Turley begged the government to “give serious consideration” to a Teesport Free Port “without delay.”
"Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system 'colonial slavery' These innocent creatures drawl out, unpitied, their short but miserable existence, in a place famed for its profession of religious zeal, whose inhabitants are ever foremost in professing 'temperance' and 'reformation' and are striving to outrun their neighbours in missionary exertions, and would fain send the Bible to the farthest corner of the globe aye, in the very place where the anti-slavery fever rages most furiously, her apparent charity is not more admired on earth, than her real cruelty is abhorred in Heaven. The very streets which receive the droppings of an 'Anti-Slavery Society' are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker, to hasten, half -dressed, but not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford!!"
– Richard Oastler, writing to the Yorkshire Mercury, 1830
[OASTLER SHOPPING CENTRE]
We are early for a meeting with Evie Manning, the co-artistic director of the company ‘Commonwealth’. We are meeting Evie at their Common Space, a former abandoned youth employment centre in Bradford that now acts as a social, political and creative space for the community.
Common Space happens to be attached to the Oastler Shopping Centre, named after the 19th Century politician Richard Oastler. It’s more like a traditional indoor Northern Market than what most people will think of as a ‘Shopping Centre’. There’s no big name stores, just a seemingly arbitrary arrangement of stalls selling everything from two-stripe Adidas to specialty foods and archaic tupperware alongside halal butchers and a range of takeaways.
Like most covered markets, there are a few empty pitches but the place feels very much alive. In truth though, the place is very much enjoying its final days.
Bradford Council recently announced that they have completed the purchase of the site, estimated at £15.5 million, for the development of a 1000-home ‘city village’.
The Oastler Shopping Centre is slated for demolition.
Several signs are visible on the stalls that give directions to their new pitches in the other shopping centres across Bradford. We worry for the ones that don’t seem to have a destination yet.
The nearby Kirkgate shopping centre, a wonderful 1970s brutalist building, will also be demolished as part of this plan.
The local authority has yet to secure planning permission for the proposed development, however it states that it plans to complete the demolition by 2024.
The council will be working with a private developer to make these plans a reality.
You could argue that for the residents of the Oastler Shopping Centre, these plans are already very much a reality.
Alex Ross-Shaw, portfolio holder for regeneration and planning at Bradford council said this is “a huge opportunity to reshape the city centre with sustainable and quality new housing, public spaces and business developments.”
As we leave we walk past the Fountains Cafe. It’s been there for just shy of 50 years. There is an older woman sitting in the window, she waves at us.
Ever since the chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, suggested managed decline as a way of dealing with the post-industrial North it has become a mainstay of Tory policy.
Initially it was touted as a punitive measure for the riot-plagued Liverpool, shortly after the Toxteth riots, however, it quickly became an important economical and ideological pillar for the party.
You can see it being used in the postal system, the NHS and every town and city of the North.
The premise is simple. You underfund an area. You cut back on services such as childcare, social housing, libraries, swimming pools and job centres. You create massive unemployment and lower the standards of living. This saves the government money in the short term.
You then invite, at arms-length, private companies into the area to exploit the desperate workforce with promises of stable jobs. They benefit from very cheap and grateful labour as well as having political clout in the area.
This is almost always spun as ‘growing the economy’ and ‘providing jobs for local people’.
A bright future.
A good example of this can be seen in Barrow-in-Furness where BAE systems employ around 29% of the workforce. The fortunes of the town are now tied to the fortunes of the company.
It’s not quite the indentured servitude of the textile mills, but it’s not that far away either.
There’s that modern trend of adding the suffix ‘-gate’ to the end of a word to imply a scandal, however the demolition of Stockton’s Castlegate shopping centre is seemingly a case of genuine regeneration.
The plan is to create an urban park in the centre of the town, alongside the River Tees, by first knocking down the 1970s shopping centre and the nearby Swallow Hotel.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this move and the destruction of other similar structures and landmarks across the North is the overwhelming support of the people of Stockton. This feels very much like their plan.
That’s not to say that these places don’t hold a lot of fond memories for people, however, there seems to be an acceptance that the highstreet has changed permanently since these structures were built and that perhaps the space should be shaped accordingly.
The existing residents of Castlegate have hopped a short distance to fill the gaps in the Wellington Square shopping precinct, giving a feeling of a thriving town that is going forwards rather than looking backwards.
This is in contrast to many other towns that are redeveloping their centres, knocking down markets and outdated structures and allowing the space to be converted to private housing.
John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, has called this, “one of the few genuinely innovative strategies around.” He goes on to suggest that the material being used in this redevelopment is ‘social infrastructure’.
Between October and December 2021 crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans washed up dead in unprecedented numbers on the North East coast of England.
At the time the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs apparently advised local campaigners to conduct their own research as the Government scientists could not be trusted to perform an impartial investigation.
As such local campaigners did just that and began to formulate a theory that the massive die-off of local wildlife was due to the dredging of the proposed Freeport site. Sediment contaminated with pyridine, a waste product of the steel and chemical industry, had been dumped at sea shortly before the event.
Teesside’s Mayor, the obviously impartial Ben Houchen, board member of Teesside Freeport initiative, appeared to dismiss the claim and suggested in an interview its proponents were nothing more than conspiracy theorists.
“It’s not just pyridine, they think it’s Agent Orange, apparently from secret factories in the second world war. We’ve also been told that it was Russian submarines trying to cause problems for the UK government.
“So I’m sure you’re not suggesting, and they are suggesting, that we do testing for these types of completely conspiratorial ideas because if we do that, we’ll never get this development under way and finished.”
That was back in 2021.
In a Guardian article dated 15 January 2023, the ‘independent’ scientists who led the research into the die off admit that they have not been asked a single question by the panel assembled by the government to look into the disaster.
In a move likened to removing the batteries out of a fire alarm to prevent fires, the panel has also been prevented from examining the government processes as part of its inquiry.
Defra has also declined to publish names of the panel members or the review’s terms of reference.
Meanwhile, Scientists from Newcastle, York, Hull and Durham universities, commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective, had found last year that pyridine was the likely cause.
Ben Houchen continues to call this a conspiracy.
Documentation is important. We might move on, but someone might want to look at this some day in the future.
I lift my camera and press the shutter.
There is no one else around, just our reflections in the many empty shop fronts.
Then there is a voice. A booming voice from everywhere in particular.
“Please refrain from doing that.”
I take another picture.
“Stop taking pictures!”
I lower the camera and fire off a few hip shots too, hoping that this omniscient voice doesn’t catch me.
A security guard appears. He tells me I’m committing a felony. That I can’t take photographs in here. It’s private land.
Not for long, I respond.
“Development proposals which would result in unacceptable harm to the significance of specific retained assets of heritage or cultural importance, such as the ‘Dorman Long’ Tower will not be supported.”
– The Redcar and Cleveland Local Plan, 2018
It’s for the good of the people.
It brings in local jobs.
It will grow the local economy.
Yet it is almost entirely owned by US energy giant General Electric.
What is now clear is that Houchen and the South Tees Development Corporation were engaged in a series of deals to create the 4500 acre freeport site after the government failed to provide the necessary funding, leading to a private sector sell-off.
Whilst seemingly being a flagship project for the post-Brexit Conservative Johnson government with strong support from the then-chancellor Rishi Sunak, the money never arrived from the treasury.
The Tees Valley Combined Authority had previously stated that:
“…the higher returns required by private developers, who are likely to compromise social and environmental objectives to maximise revenues”.
However, finding itself £350 million short (Mayor Houchen would say it was far less at just £206 million) it was agreed to raise capital by granting private partners additional access to the company, taking their share to 90%.
A bright future for local people.
It appears that international corporations managed to leverage the greed and naivety of a local mayor via the UK’s own government to buy a sizable chunk of the North East, intending to generate sizable profits without paying reciprocal tax and free from the sort of laws that protect the local workforce.
It might have been a rotting coal bunker, but it was our coal bunker.
Ben Houchen is an agent of well managed decline.
Picture him sat up there, his legs dangling above a few hundred feet of nothing.
The wind is smoking more of his cigarette than he is.
You are up there with him. You can see for miles in every direction, standing atop of this industrial monument.
Fred says to you that, ‘Height gives you a wonderful feeling of grandeur. You're the king of the castle up here.’
You can’t help but agree.
He looks a little sad, for a king.
You ask him what is on his mind. He takes the cigarette from his mouth with blackened fingers and says, ‘I set out as a steeplejack in my youth to preserve chimneys. I've finished by knocking most of them down.’
You stand there on legs made slightly of jelly. You don’t say anything. There is nothing to say.
He stands up and pats the chimney you are about to dismantle, brick by brick.
‘Anybody who destroys anything made of stone should be prosecuted. It is not all beautiful, but it took a man all day to make one stone.’