Celebrations over sale of mothballed steel plant

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The Independent Online

Steelworkers were celebrating tonight after news that a huge plant mothballed earlier this year with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs is to be sold under a multimillion-pound deal to a Thai company.

The Corus plant on Teesside was partially closed when a four-nation international consortium suddenly walked away from a long-term contract to buy its products.

More than 1,000 workers at the Teesside Cast Products (TCP) site lost their jobs and there were fears of thousands more losses across the region in firms which supplied Corus with goods and services.

After months of behind-the-scenes talks, it was announced that plans were under way to sell the factory to SSI, the biggest steel producer in Thailand for £320 million, raising the prospect of a "significant" number of new jobs and returning the plant to full production.

The Government, unions and local politicians hailed the announced as "fantastic news" for the North East, which relies heavily on the steel industry for employment.

The site used to employ 2,200 before the consortium pulled out, with 700 still working at the plant and hundreds of others leaving voluntarily or switching to jobs at other Corus plants.

Talks to finalise the deal will continue in the coming months and will include negotiations with unions and the Government over employment details as well as the prospect of financial aid.

Win Viriyaprapaikit, president of SSI, said: "We have great respect for the tradition of steel-making on Teesside and for the highly skilled Teesside workforce, having previously purchased slab from Teesside Cast Products.

"This transaction will enable SSI to fulfil its long-standing objective of becoming a fully integrated steel producer with both melting and rolling facilities."

He said it was too early to say how many jobs would be created, but believed it would be in the hundreds.

He also declined to say if the Government would be asked for grants or other forms of aid, but said he was looking forward to discussions with ministers about a "wide range" of issues.

He revealed that SSI plans to produce 3.5 million tonnes of slab steel from the plant - its full capacity - and export it all to Thailand, whereas previously around four fifths of the site's output was exported to Europe, South America and Korea.

Corus chief executive Kirby Adams said: "We are very pleased to announce this significant progress in our long-held objective to sell the TCP assets to a strategic industry investor.

"This is the first of several steps required to reach a definitive sale agreement in the coming months which, with the anticipated co-operation of Government, employee representatives and the North East community, should result in the restart of steel-making on Teesside in the first half of 2011."

He complained that criticism he had faced this year over the future of the Teesside site was "unfair", saying the sale process had been complex.

"It has taken some time but my preference was to make sure we took the time and end up with a company of the quality of SSI to deliver a long-term, sustainable solution for the Teesside community. I am delighted we are where we are today."

Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "I warmly welcome this development which may see the restoration of steel-making on Teesside and a huge economic boost to this region.

"We have been in regular contact with both sides and I have met with Ratan Tata twice since becoming Business Secretary.

"We have made both parties aware that the Government stands ready to help as discussions on a potential purchase continue."

Michael Leahy, general secretary of the Community union, said: "This long overdue announcement is great news for Teesside.

"SSI have a well-earned reputation that should reassure the community that steelmaking is at the top of their agenda. The resumption of production on Teesside will rejuvenate the local area, get people back into work and ensures a strong future for the British steel industry.

"The trade unions have worked tirelessly for a resolution to this situation, and are now looking to tie up any loose ends and bring this matter to a conclusion. For our members on Teesside who have survived on a knife edge since May 2009, the sale of TCP will mark the beginning of a new and challenging era of steelmaking."

Unite national officer Terry Pye said: "Last year this site was pronounced dead but thanks to the intervention, and determination of the workforce and their unions to find a buyer this steel plant has been brought back to life.

"The deal secures jobs for the future and generates wealth and opportunity for the local community. This is fantastic news."

Shadow business secretary Pat McFadden said: "This agreement is good news for Teesside and a welcome boost which will hopefully mean steelmaking at the plant for years to come.

"When Labour was in government we did everything we could to bring parties together to try to secure a viable future for the Teesside plant. The Government must now do everything to make this agreement work."

Today's news brings the prospect of a happy ending to a saga which started last year when the consortium of Marcegaglia of Italy, South Korea's Dongkuk, Switzerland's Duferco and Alvory of Argentina walked away nearly five years into a 10-year deal to buy most of the plant's output.

Mr Adams said Corus is continuing to take legal action against the four-nation consortium that pulled out of the contract last year, and he expected a successful resolution in the next six months.

North East Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall welcomed the announcement.

"This is fantastic news for Teesside and the North East," she said.

"Today's deal shows that there is a future for steelmaking on Teesside with the area's highly skilled workforce a key ingredient in attracting new investors.

"I hope that the work to take the memorandum of understanding to a fully signed-off deal will be completed as soon as possible."