Communities must lead the way ahead

Public meeting at Rio Tinto Alcan to discuss issues around the closure of the smelter with locals. (r) Alan Thompson, Newbiggin Town Council.
Public meeting at Rio Tinto Alcan to discuss issues around the closure of the smelter with locals. (r) Alan Thompson, Newbiggin Town Council.

LOCAL communities must take the lead in shaping the future of Lynemouth’s Alcan smelter site, bosses have said.

A Regional Economic Development (RED) group has been set up by Rio Tinto Alcan to try to ease the impact of the smelter’s closure and find new investors.

But at the first public meeting organised by the company last week to discuss the issues, RED Director John McCabe said the vision for the site’s future should come from the community.

“We need to engage with the community to ensure that what we can do and what we do is in line with your objectives,” he said.

“We will work with stakeholders and the community at all levels to determine what is required.

“What we need to establish is what do you as a community want to do and achieve? For example, do we look for somebody like Tesco to build a supermarket that could employ potentially 350 people at a certain wage level, or do we look for a high-tech manufacturer that would employ fewer people, maybe 200, but pay more? Do you need the numbers or the quality? Ideally, we want both, but it is that kind of thing that you as a community have to determine, and then be flexible about how we progress that plan.”

Mr McCabe said it is vital for talks to continue with agencies and Northumberland County Council to avoid any actions that may jeopardise potential investment.

“We need to make sure that we integrate the bits and pieces we are responsible for,” he said.

“The worst thing we could do is knock a building down and then find that the county council is talking to an investor who is looking for a building the same size and shape.

“We need to make sure that the RED work is tied in.”

He added that no time limits have been placed on the RED, but the work could take some years.

“There is no end date to it. Experts from elsewhere have suggested it is probably a three to four year piece of work, but if Nissan picked up the phone tomorrow and said it would like to build a Washington 2 in Lynemouth then I’m out of a job, but we would get some new jobs on the site. It will take as long as it takes,” he said.

Lynemouth Parish councillor Vince Dudley agreed it will be important to attract the right kind of jobs to the area.

“We don’t want this area to be a low wage industry. Alcan has always been known for paying decent wages and we don’t want to see adults working for £6 an hour or whatever. We have to try to avoid bringing in low wage, long hours work with poor job security. We need to take steps to avoid that kind of thing,” he said.

County councillor Alan Thompson, of Newbiggin, said the area is too reliant on big industry and it would be better to focus on technology.

“It is up to us to salvage what we can from this. We can’t help what has happened with the smelter therefore we have to use this as an opportunity to make as much from it as we possibly can,” he said. We have a lot of skills here and it would be beneficial if we can retain those skills and transfer them to others so that they can contribute towards building an economy in south east Northumberland.

“We have been too heavily reliant in the past on very large industries. To give some idea, in the old Wansbeck District we had less than 3,000 VAT registered companies – a reasonably prosperous area of the same size would expect to have about 6,000.

“I would much sooner we had lots of small businesses rather than a very large industry because when that blows up everything goes.

“It has to be technologies because economic progress is driven by technology.”

Lynemouth Community Trust Vice Chairman Bill Tarbit said there will be tough times ahead, but the smelter site has potential.

“The local community is struggling through this financial economic climate now. It will be a struggle in the next few years to find something to enable people to survive and sustain themselves through this difficult time,” he said.

“I would like to think that another Nissan would come in. This site is unique throughout the country and maybe throughout Europe because of the features that it has in terms of the power station and railway line and it is a big site, with buildings and so on. It is just that in the world global economy at the moment there is not a great deal of mobile businesses around, but you never know.”

Further meetings will be held throughout the decommissioning process.