Shuttered steelworks becomes crucible for Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ plan

MIDDLESBROUGH, England (Reuters) – Looming over the skyline of Teesside in northeast England stands the rusting hulk of what used to be Europe’s largest blast furnace, which shut in 2015 with the loss of more than 2,200 jobs.

A general view of the SSI Steelworks site in Redcar, Britain February 14, 2020. Picture taken February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Scott Heppell

Attempts to bring investment and employment back to what was once one of England’s industrial heartlands will be a test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to help ‘left-behind’ areas.

His government’s first budget on March 11 will make increased infrastructure spending in the north of England, and other underperforming regions, a focal point of Britain’s post-Brexit economic strategy.

While most workers from the SSI blast furnace have found new jobs, they had to accept big cuts in pay or move away, said Paul Warren, a former steelworker and national organiser for the trade union Community.

“Some people haven’t recovered still. It has torn families apart,” he said. “You had a job for life, a good pension. Then, that’s it, gone.”

Johnson swept to victory in December’s election with votes in areas such as the Tees Valley that historically backed the Labour Party, but switched to the Conservatives because of his pro-Brexit policy.

The area’s mayor, Conservative Ben Houchen, said the party will not hold on to the region unless it improves living standards.

“The Conservatives have been lent the votes of local people, and if we don’t get it right – and if Boris Johnson doesn’t get it right – I absolutely believe that they’ll all go Labour again in five years’ time,” he said.

The Tees Valley has received £360 million in extra public funds since Houchen became mayor in 2017,

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