If she sought a monument: Six years ago Mrs Thatcher walked into a wilderness. We know about the woman. What happened to the place?

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The Independent Online
'WE MUST do something about the inner cities,' Mrs Thatcher announced in the afterglow of her June 1987 general election victory. What she meant, it was later suggested, was that something had to be done about the collapse of the Conservative vote in the inner cities.

Nevertheless, by September wheels were spinning. On the 15th, Mrs Thatcher flew to Teesside to do something quite unlike her: launch an interventionist quango, the Teesside Development Corporation.

John Voos, the Independent's photographer, says that most of his negatives from the day are of the backs of policeman. 'There was a lot of security. No public were allowed - it was a 'sanitised area'. We got no pictures at all, so eventually we asked her to walk towards us through the bit of waste ground. I took a picture as she walked away to get into position, and that was that.'

The photograph ran across the front page of the paper the next day - the caption told how Mrs Thatcher had met just one unemployed man on her tour: Eric Fletcher, of Grangemouth. He showed her some of the 1,000 fruitless job applications he had made. She told him to go and get retrained. The next day, cartoonist Nicholas Garland redrew the picture for the front page, and borrowed Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph in St Paul's Cathedral for a caption: 'If you seek for a monument, gaze around'.

Mrs Thatcher, frail crusader haloed by the weak sun, wanders alone into the post-

industrial wastescape: it is one of the two most powerful images of her reign (however, neither it nor Ken Lennox's photograph for the Daily Mirror of her tearful departure from Downing Street appears in her memoirs). The picture is one of the Independent syndication department's all-time best-sellers - when Mrs Thatcher did depart, it appeared in journals from Stern to the Los Angeles Times.

It is known as 'the wilderness picture' and it goes with stories of British industrial collapse brought about, partly at least, by Mrs Thatcher and her economic philosophy. But that, as it turns out, is not entirely fair. She may have shaming monuments, but the site of the old Head Wrightson steel foundry site in Stockton-on-Tees is not one of them.

Last week John Voos photographed Duncan Hall, chief executive of the Teesside Development Corporation on the same spot - though the area has changed so much that the two of them had to resort to aerial photographs before they could decide where it was.

Mr Hall is standing in the car park of a pounds 10m office block, the first of five to be built in what is now Teesdale, a 450- acre office and factory development; 280 acres are already let. According to the corporation, 7,000 jobs have been created on sites it has developed since parliamentary assent was given for the building of the Tees barrage in 1990. There are at least 3,000 more to come. It has spent pounds 200m of Government money, and attracted pounds 700m, so far, from the private sector.

'The private sector is building factories on Teesside for the first time in 20 years,' said Mr Hall.

The TDC long ago recognised the ambiguity of the wilderness picture, and it continues to use it in its publicity. Mr Hall said: 'The walk in the wilderness created a benchmark for us, a stunning visual identification of the problems of Teesside and of the requirements for the future.' It also, he added, usefully identified Mrs Thatcher with the project; later, she allowed the corporation to use 10 Downing Street to entertain potential investors. Her words of that day: 'Where you have initiative, talent and ability, the money follows', stay on the brochures.

Unemployment in Stockton-on-Tees is down, a bit - from 17 per cent of the workforce when Mrs Thatcher visited in September 1987 to 14.3 per cent last month. That is only 2,000 fewer people, but it is against the national trend.

And Eric Fletcher is doing all right. 'Grabbing Maggie was the best thing I have ever done,' he says. Now 40, he did indeed retrain, and got a job with a local printing firm. He recently bought his house and took a holiday in France. But Mr Fletcher still sees a wilderness. 'There are no jobs now, and there were no jobs then,' he says. 'I'm particularly worried for the young ones.'

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(Photographs omitted)