The final countdown

URGENT work is under way to help 515 staff at Rio Tinto Alcan following news that main operations will close at the end of the month.

The final blow for the troubled Lynemouth aluminium smelter came on Tuesday when workers were told that consultation on its future had ended with no sign of a buyer or any hope of saving it from the axe.

Hot metal production will end on Thursday, March 29, and, as revealed in the Herald last week, the majority of the staff, 323 workers, will leave at the end of May.

Others will remain in the carbon and casting plants until later in the year when only 60 workers will be kept on in decommissioning, remediation and regional economic development roles.

The company’s ship unloading facility at the Port of Blyth will continue to operate for around 18 months and will be used to store and transport raw materials for the Lochaber smelter in the Scottish Highlands.

Rio Tinto also owns around 4,500 acres of farmland in the area, which it is looking to sell.

Talks on the sale of Lynemouth Power Station, which employs 120 people, are ongoing with potential buyers, the Government and electricity regulators to determine how it could be used in the future.

Alcan Aluminium Corporate Affairs Director John McCabe said: “Although we have been preparing for the worst, we have been hoping for the best, but the consultation has ended and this is the outcome. While it wasn’t unexpected, it is still a very sad day.

“We are trying where we can to mitigate the impact on the people affected as much as we possibly can.

“We are providing employment support, re-training and trying to help with things like CV preparation and interview techniques. We are also working with Jobcentre Plus to try to find them employment elsewhere.

“The focus right now is on the employees directly affected by this, then we will start to look at the decommissioning of the plant, the remediation of the land and the regional economic development work.

“With local enterprise partners, we will try to reinvigorate the economy of south east Northumberland, particularly on this site.

“We will try to attract some new investment from elsewhere to the site to hopefully bring some more jobs.

“There have been some initial inquiries about the land, but we need to have a look at those in due course. The immediate focus is on the people directly involved in this now.”

Mr McCabe added that staff have many skills that could transfer to other industries.

“The guys have really transferable skills. Some have experience of driving different plant vehicles, operating all kinds of machinery or working at heights and they have all got experience of working to really stringent safety standards. They would be of interest to a whole range of different sectors.

“They are a great bunch of guys, they work hard and they have a lot to offer other employers,” he said.

The director put the reasons for the plant’s closure down to the high operating costs of the business and the impact of future environmental taxes.

Rio Tinto Alcan Chief Executive Jacynthe Cote said: “I am saddened by the closure of Lynemouth smelter, but we have reached this decision only after a thorough strategic review of the plant and a fair and transparent consultation process.

“I have met with Lynemouth unions and staff members and I have great respect for the manner in which they have represented their colleagues during consultation.

“We will now focus on safely decommissioning the plant, working with our employees to mitigate the impact of redundancy on them and their families and partnering with all interested stakeholders on the future regional economic development of the Lynemouth site.

“We are in close contact with our customers to limit the impact on their businesses under the scope of our contractual agreements.”

The company, which took over the site in 2007, is still willing to consider credible interest in its carbon and casting plants.

And the GMB union will continue to push to find a buyer for the site throughout workers’ notice period.

Regional Organiser Keir Howe said: “After a difficult consultation process, no long-term plans have emerged to save jobs at Alcan. Hundreds of GMB members will be faced with losing their job by the end of May and with the economy in the present state our members are worried there won’t be enough jobs out there for them all.

“Alcan has a hard-working and dedicated workforce, which any potential buyer could benefit from.

“The loss of the smelter will be devastating for our members, their local communities and the region as a whole and it is time the Government stepped in to assist in saving this site.

“This is the largest private sector employer in Northumberland and will be the first of many companies in the energy-intensive industry that may be lost if the Government does not act.”

Northumberland County Council has set up a Response Group, including Rio Tinto Alcan, Jobcentre Plus, the Skills Funding Agency, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, North East Chamber of Commerce and Connect for Change, to co-ordinate support for Alcan workers and those in the supply chain whose positions may be at risk.

Chairman Paul Moffat said: “Over the last few months RTA and the response group have been working together on preparing support packages to be rolled out quickly if a final decision was taken to close the smelter.

“Part of the council’s role is to help mitigate the negative social impact on our communities and we are working with local schools, colleges, voluntary and community groups to co-ordinate support.

“A number of specialist advice sessions have already taken place and we will continue to provide support as long as it is needed during the phased closure.”

A careers advice centre was set up at Alcan in February and an open day was held at Lynemouth Resource Centre for those in the supply chain at risk of redundancy.

Further events are planned this month, covering issues such as money management, health, housing, enterprise start-up and job vacancies. In April there will be a session on employability and skills advice.