Header Image: The Dorman Long Tower in 2011
As we pass the first anniversary of the demolition of the iconic Dorman Long Tower, and with it the anniversary of the appointment of, now former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, thePipeLine investigates a tumultuous week which arguably provided a lesson in the realpolitik of historic building conservation which was every bit as brutal as the architecture of the Teesside icon which campaigners tried to save.
Between October and December 2021 crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans had been dying in unprecedented numbers off the north east coast of England and nobody could say for sure why. However, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], which might have been expected to gather evidence regarding such concerning events, appeared strangely reluctant to investigate the ecological mystery in detail. On 3 September  writing in the Observer newspaper Shanti Das, reported that the agency had even told local campaigners to produce their own research into the mysterious and disturbing event because they would not trust anything the Government’s scientists produced anyway.
Meanwhile, faced with allegations the die off might be connected with the chemical pyridine, contained in sediment dumped at sea after dredging for the proposed Teesside freeport, in the Autumn of 2021, Teesside’s elected Mayor, Ben Houchen, appeared to dismiss the claim and suggested in an interview its proponents were nothing more than conspiracy theorists.
Quoting an interview for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the Observer reported that the Mayor had said,
“It’s not just pyridine, they think it’s Agent Orange, apparently from secret factories in the second world war. We’ve also been told that it was Russian submarines trying to cause problems for the UK government.
“So I’m sure you’re not suggesting, and they are suggesting, that we do testing for these types of completely conspiratorial ideas because if we do that, we’ll never get this development under way and finished.”
After a complaint from Mayor Houchen that he had been misrepresented, the BBC subsequently wrote to the mayor and issued a clarification, stating more context for his comments would have been “helpful” and that in the unedited version of the interview he had called for additional government support for north east fishermen and accepted the findings of DEFRA, which at that time was that the blame for the die off lay most likely with a toxic algal bloom.
In his full interview Mayor Houchen also highlighted his claim that the licence for the new development on the Tees had only been awarded after a stringent set of tests, and that the situation around the Tees and adjacent areas of the North Sea would continue to be monitored.
It is the the fragility of those “stringent” tests, and of the the environmental checks and balances developed over decades, which guide development, which this story of the struggle to have heritage recognised in the development of the Teesside Freeport highlights.
Step back a year to the late Summer of 2021 and just weeks ahead of the sea life die off, the same Mayor, the then thirty four year old Ben Houchen, was levelling similar accusations of putting at risk development against campaigners trying to save at least some of Teesside’s once considerable industrial heritage.
To some the hulking concrete presence of the Dorman Long Tower was the lasting monument to the proud industrial heritage of the north east of England. To others, including it would appear Mayor Houchen, it was a rotting impediment to redevelopment, jobs and a bright new industrial future on the sunlit uplands of Brexit Britain. Using releases under the Freedom of Information Act as well as other publicly available material, thePipeLine has pieced together the events of a tumultuous week which saw one of England’s most powerful regional politicians, mayor Houchen, go up against the national heritage advisor Historic England and which culminated in one of Boris Johnson’s most controversial cabinet appointments making the kind of decision which, by an accident of timing, seem to come to define an entire area of policy and attitude of Government.
While possessed of a rich industrial heritage, in the twenty first century Middlesbrough on the river Tees is the fifth most deprived local authority in England, with, in 2019, eight council wards being among the top 3% most deprived nationally and six of those in the top 1% most deprived. These are facts which have understandably driven the mission of the lawyer turned politician, Ben Houchen, to try to attract investment and jobs to the Tees valley. Nonetheless, as this story begins in the late Summer of 2021 the situation of the Dorman Long Tower appeared to be secure within the established bureaucracy of the planning system.
The Redcar and Cleveland Local Plan, had been adopted by the local planning authority Redcar and Cleveland council, in the Spring of 2018 and contained within it was what was effectively the blueprint for development in the council area, Policy LS4.
This policy set out that planning proposals submitted to the council should,
“…safeguard and enhance the significance of buildings, sites and
settings and areas of heritage and cultural importance including the Dorman Long Tower at South Bank Coke Ovens supporting its adaptation to enable alternative uses’.
Also contained within the plan was Planning Principle STDC 8. This section of the plan addressed preserving so called “Heritage Assets”, that is sites which have been identified, or might be identified in future during the planning process, as having heritage or cultural significance, locally or nationally
This states explicitly that,
“Development proposals which would result in unacceptable harm to the significance of specific retained assets of heritage or cultural importance, such as the ‘Dorman Long’ Tower will not be supported.”
Finally another planning document, this time the South Tees Master Plan (dated November 2019), also addressed the issue of the Dorman Long Tower and encouraged its re-use.
Put in heritage terms the reason for the Tower being highlighted in the regional planning strategy documents was clear. Within the former steelworks, the largest, and possibly the most contaminated brownfield development site in Europe, the 1956 Dorman Long Tower had fulfilled a key role as a coal store for the state-of-the-art coking plant adjacent to the huge steelworks built on the south bank of River Tees at Redcar.
The coal, fed the furnaces, the steel from the furnaces at one time fed the construction industries of the world.
Indeed, the Dorman Long branding, moulded into the fabric of the austerely functional concrete structure, was an advertisement for one of the North East’s greatest steel and heavy engineering companies.
Created in 1876 when 28 year old Albert John Dorman entered into a business partnership with Albert de Lande Long, Dorman Long took over the then West Marsh Ironworks in Middlesbrough on the banks of the river Tees.
By 1914 the company employed 20,000 workers and, as a measure of Dorman Long’s prestige and expertise in major projects, the company had been active worldwide, including an involvement in the construction of iconic buildings from Sydney Harbour Bridge to the London Shard and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.
Given that heritage and its international importance, Historic England were fully justified in describing the Tower as,
“…a rare surviving remnant of the coal, iron and steel industries, standing as a monument to our 20th Century industrial heritage.”
Many people agreed with that assessment and supported the attempts to retain the Tower in its own right, both as a heritage building, and as a fitting, visually powerful memorial to heritage of heavy engineering in the North East, and not just on Teesside.
Indeed, during the run up to the 2021 mayoral election for Mayor of the Tees Valley, Labour candidate Jesse Joe Jacobs had advocated retaining elements of the former steelworks, saying,
“Other places across the globe such as Landschaftspark, in Germany, which is now a world famous tourist attraction, have found ways to protect their heritage while creating jobs and a future for the area. We must explore all options.”
Conservative MP Jacob Young, who had won the “Red Wall” seat in the 2019 General Election, had also supported retaining the tower, stating its importance as,
“…a monument to our industrial heritage and the many thousands of men and women who have worked in our steel industry.”
However, in the Summer of 2021 the political mood had changed. With Jacobs and the Labour Party crushed in a landslide victory in which he gained almost 73% of votes cast, Mayor Houchen now headed a political and lobbying operation which aimed to clear the way for the development of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s vision of Teesside as one of a network of so called Freeports, with its attendant industrial and distribution infrastructure.
However, while in the past the mayor had seemed to support the retention of the Dorman Long Tower, albeit with reservations and his mandate certainly did not extend to an explicit undertaking to demolish the Dorman Long Tower, a BBC report of 2 August 2021 suggested things had changed in the mayor’s public stance.
Mayor Houchen said of the former steelworks,
“We now need to crack on, to make sure the site is cleared by this time next year and nothing stands in the way of bringing new investment and a tsunami of jobs to the site once again.”
As part of that strategy the remaining buildings on the former SSI steelworks site at Redcar would be blown up to clear the way for new industrial areas, including a headlining wind turbine manufacturing facility, which would be built by LM Wind, a subsidiary of energy giant GE Renewables.
What was not known publicly at the time, but which is now clear thanks to an ongoing investigation by Private Eye magazine, Mayor Houchen, the public South Tees Development Corporation and a joint venture company Teesworks Ltd, had been engaged in a series of deals to redevelop the 4500 acre site. Leading the private sector involvement were local property developers Martin Corney and Christopher Musgrave and the deals had seen the public bodies headed up by the mayor cede increasing control of the regeneration project, and control as to what happened on the site itself, to the private sector businessmen.
The reason for this shift in control from public to private was that the mayor’s regeneration project was in urgent need of cash.
As Private Eye points out, while being a flagship project for the Johnson government’s post Brexit industrial and levelling up strategies, the ministerial visits and photo opportunities, including with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself, had not been accompanied by any serious money from the Treasury.
Thus while in early 2020 the the Tees Valley Combined Authority had presented a business case to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] which stated that a privately led redevelopment was unlikely to be sustainable financially because,
“…the higher returns required by private developers, who are likely to compromise social and environmental objectives to maximise revenues”,
the reality was very different.
In August 2021, just as the decision appears to have been finalised to overturn the policies in the planning documents and demolish the Dorman Long, the finance director of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, Gary MacDonald, told the board of the development corporation that in order to “incentivise delivery” of the project, there was a necessity to transfer significant levels of risk, and reward to the private sector partners.
The Eye reports that finance director MacDonald told the board that Teesworks Ltd needed to raise loans of around £350 million to cover remediation and the development of infrastructure within the site, although Mayor Houchen would later state that the figure was somewhat lower at £206 million. This financing would be achieved by granting the private sector partners an additional 40% of the shares in the company, taking their overall holding to 90% of the project.
In the absence of money from the Government the mayor stated he had no choice but to enter into such a deal which essentially surrendered control of the project to the private sector partners.
The only real leverage left to publicly accountable officials, such as the mayor, would be the local authority planning responsibilities which are fixed in planning law.
The deal also included an agreement to share the proceeds of the sale of scrap from the site between the public development corporation and the private Teesworks Ltd including Mr Corney and Mr Musgrave.
The investigation by Private Eye disclosed this agreement for the first time, and revealed that between April and August 2021 they received four dividends totalling £8.7 million, and all before a single new business had taken up residence on the site.
It is distinctly possible that these events, all of which are perfectly legal, are not unconnected with the decision to demolish the Dorman Long tower and the reason is simple.
Regardless of whether it was in the way of future development- while they might not always like it, planners design around listed buildings all the time-left standing, especially as a listed building with the legal responsibilities that come with listing, the Dorman Long Tower was a potential cash drain for the owner of the site, now almost entirely the private venture.
Blown to the ground the cash drain was removed and potentially, depending on what material was capable of being recycled as scrap, the material remains of the Tower might even contribute to the plus side of the financial balance sheet.
Against this background the public part of the project, the South Tees Development Corporation [STDC], which is chaired by Mayor Houchen, now commissioned a structural appraisal of the Dorman Long Tower from the consultants Atkins.
It must be stressed that commissioning such a report is a routine practice in planning under the long established principal of “the polluter pays” for any costs arising from their impact on the environment.
What is curious is that the Atkins report seems to have been developed over a relatively short time, with the first draft being dated 9 August 2021 and the final version being completed by 27 August, in the meantime having gone for “client approval”.
Significantly, but again perfectly legally, although it could be argued to be partial as it had been paid for and approved by the party which, events show, wanted to see the Dorman Long Tower demolished, the Atkins report was not peer reviewed.
Neither would the report be made public until after the Tower had been blown up and was thus no longer available to enable any independent expert, or expert body, to mark Atkins homework as would be the case in a normal planning process.
Indeed, looking at the speed with which the scheme to demolish the Dorman Long Tower appears to have been put together it is now clear that for whatever reason Mayor Houchen appears to have decided that he needed the Dorman Long Tower demolished, and demolished as quickly as possible, apparently with as little scrutiny as possible.
Demolition contractor Thompson’s of Prudhoe moved in and began to prepare the Tower for demolition which was scheduled for Sunday 18 September.
However, there are two mysteries as to the timing of the decision to demolish the Dorman Long Tower.
First, the application to demolish the tower was lodged with Redcar and Cleveland council on 19 August 2021, one day after the board discussion, but over a week before the final version of the Atkins report was signed off by STDC. Nonetheless the documents gave the reason for the demolition as being,
“The building is structurally unsound and therefore cannot remain. The site has also been identified as one of number of opportunities to clear assets in advance of future redevelopment, in line with Teesworks’ aspirations for the wider site area as set out in its Regeneration Master Plan.”
Effectively the Atkins report would be window dressing.
Second, during the course of the subsequent attempts to list the Tower the Teesside Combined Authority and Mayor Houchen stated in an e-mail that there was a lead time of thirty two weeks required to allow Network Rail to put in place the necessary safety closure of the adjacent railway line.
If the mayor and Teesworks were correct regarding the lead time with Network Rail then the decision to demolish the set of buildings, of which the Dorman Long tower was a part, must have been taken and notified to Network Rail as early as mid March 2021.
Although it is possible the demolition of the Tower was added to an existing window of opportunity, with other buildings adjacent to the railway already scheduled to be blown up that September, March 2021 was months before the discussion of the demolition of the Tower at board level and well before the Atkins report which would be claimed to be the Tower’s death sentence.
Indeed, the e-mail trail states that, in spite of the sensitivities of the demolition of a perceived heritage building, highlighted in strategic planning documents, the fate of the Tower was mentioned only twice at board level in the run up to the demolition.
An e-mail records that the minutes of the meeting held on 29 July recorded board members considered retaining the tower. However, this was with the caveat that any retention should not be at the expense of the wider site development.
At another meeting on 18 August 2021 the Atkins report, along with additional information, was discussed, with the information placed before the board, purporting to deal with the issue of retention, by detailing the alleged costs, the potential lifespan of the Tower once restored, and the what are described as the added difficulties and costs of bringing it down once the site had been developed.
Nonetheless, regardless of the timing the demolition almost didn’t happen.
The current planning system in England is generally recognised to be skewed against community organisations trying to prevent developers going ahead with projects which are seen to be damaging to the historic environment and landscape. Not least under the National Planning Policy Framework brought in by the Cameron Government, there is a presumption in favour of “sustainable development”.
In a change to its remit brought in at the same time, the government’s statutory expert advisor, Historic England, is also required to support sustainable development.
Given that the system itself defines what “sustainable” actually means, in normal circumstances, it would generally have to be pretty egregious project for Historic England to oppose a proposal. While the regeneration plan for the Teesworks site was all about promoting jobs in the green economy, particularly offshore wind power.
However, there is one tool available to heritage and environmental campaigners which can be available in planning disputes and that is Listing.
The mechanism to protect important heritage buildings set up under the Listed Buildings and Archaeological Areas Act  is independent of the planning system and a case can be made for the listing on any building regardless of its condition, or whether it is in the way of an ambitious politicians pet project. It was that tool which Nick Long, founder of the Dorman Long preservation group, now deployed.
With the demolition just over a week away Mr Long requested an emergency listing in the light of the imminent threat that the Tower, the importance of which was highlighted, and to a degree protected, in local planning strategies, was to be blown up.
To the relief of Mr Long, and to Mayor Houchen’s fury, on 10 September 2021 Historic England granted the request and an e-mail from Historic England in London informed the Mayor and Teesworks that the Dorman Long Tower had been approved for listing at Grade 2 by the DCMS.
The reasons for listing included the fact that the tower was,
- a rare (considered to be nationally unique) surviving structure from the
C20 coal, iron and steel industries;
- a design which is above the purely functional which also cleverly
combines control-room, storage and fire-fighting functions for a state-of-the-art coking plant.
for its association with, and an advert for, Dorman Long which
dominated the steel and heavy engineering industry of Teesside for most
of the C20, a leading firm nationally with an international reputation, for
example building the Sidney Harbour Bridge.
On the same day Redcar and Cleveland council had given the green light to the demolition.
With the listing in place work on preparing the demolition charges had to stop and any further demolition work, or indeed work of any kind, undertaken without listed building consent, would be a potential #HeritageCrime.
At the end of a remarkable day Mr Long greeted the listing with the comment that,
“It survived for 70 years and is going to survive for another 70 years.”
The Dorman Long Tower would actually survive for barely more than seven days.
In spite of it being the weekend Mayor Houchen was on site the next day, Saturday, and his team worked throughout Saturday and Sunday 11/12 September 2021 to prepare a challenge to the listing.
The DCMS was also pressuring Historic England.
The initial response to the listing request for the Dorman Long Tower had been undertaken as per routine by the North East Listing Team at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle upon Tyne, with London rubber stamping the decision. However, by the morning of Monday 13 September the response had been escalated, with the Heritage team at the DCMS engaged in urgent discussions and the response to the listing case by Historic England now being run from the organisation’s national headquarters in Cannon Bridge House, London EC4, overseen by Chief Executive Duncan Wilson.
This is understandable because, by now, everyone at Historic England will have been acutely aware that the organisation was about to enter a hugely sensitive political space at the centre of the Government’s flagship levelling up and Freeport agendas.
It is thus no surprise that Mr Wilson appears to have convened an urgent meeting within Historic England to discuss the listing, particularly in the light of the review request which had now been received from Mayor Houchen.
On the morning of 13 September the DCMS also laid out the situation as it saw it in the light of the listing.
Because the listing had been made without a site visit and other contacts with the owner -the Historic England team had identified an urgent threat, the Dorman Long was about to be blown up- the DCMS would respond as it normally did and ask for a completely fresh assessment case to be opened.
This new assessment would include site visits and consultations with stakeholders. Meanwhile the original Review request from Mayor Houchen would be put on ice.
This had the effect of placing Mayor Houchen and his team at the centre of the new assessment of the Tower.
In a football loving region, it was as if an amateur Northern League side had taken the lead against Teesside’s Championship side Middlesborough in a home tie, only to have the professionals have the match abandoned and replayed at their own Riverside Stadium with their choice of fans and officials.
Not only that, the non professional fans of the Dorman Long Tower would be excluded from the game.
The fate of the listing would be decided between Mayor Houchen and his team, including consultants Atkins, Historic England and the DCMS. Local opinion would only become involved again if the decision went to a second leg- consultation.
At the Tees Valley Combined Authority [soon to become Teesworks] the administration went onto a war footing, imposing a media blackout on comments and warning staff to refrain from making any comments about the affair on personal Social Media, ostensibly for fear of portraying any bias.
At 11.02 on 14 September, ahead of a site meeting which was due to take place that afternoon, an official working out of the DCMS Headquarters e-mailed a counterpart in Historic England to drive home the potential political implications of the listing and the need, as Mayor Houchen and the Government in the shape of the DCMS saw it, to expedite the listing review [our italics].
“I’m really sure the Mayor will make these points,” the official wrote, “but there is significant local and national investment potentially at risk if this review drags on so would hope to complete the review as swiftly as poss.”
However, one bone of contention was the need for and duration of, any consultation to accompany the Listing Review.
In e-mails sent on 14 September officials at both the DCMS and Historic England referred to the expectation and desire for a standard 21 day consultation period, after the adjudication of the listing, although the question had arisen as to whether it should be shortened.
An official at Historic England also requested clarification as to the consultation ahead of a site meeting at the Dorman Long site, which had been arranged for later that day, to be attended by experts and senior officials including Mayor Houchen himself.
Another e-mail suggests that Historic England was under the impression that the only real deadline was 15 September when a Go/No-Go decision had to be made with regard to the demolition the following weekend.
Once that deadline was passed, the organisation seems to have thought, the only procedural concern was that due process was followed carefully and within a reasonable time period.
Characteristically, Mayor Houchen placed himself front and centre as experts from bodies both sides of the argument gathered in the shadow of the tower to reassess its state and future.
Following the site meeting additional reporting and advice was prepared and passed to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where the decision as to whether or not to list the Tower now lay with Secretary of State Oliver Dowden.
At six twenty four on the evening of 15 September an e-mail sent to the Secretary of State’s private office and copied to Mayor Ben Houchen, put more pressure on the DCMS, stating,
“Just a quick note to prompt the decision on delisting Dorman Long Tower.
Needs to be done ASAP, if decision is to delist. We need notification by 10am tomorrow morning to go ahead with demolition.”
However, even as the e-mail was landing, and while the discussions continued on Teesside and in the upper echelons of Historic England, and DCMS, in the late afternoon of 15 September Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw in the wildest of political wild cards with a cabinet reshuffle.
The Secretary of State who had been poised to take the decision about the Dorman Long, Oliver Dowden, was transferred to the administrative role of Chair of the Conservative Party.
Dowden’s replacement was new to the cabinet, and would cause a collective intake of breath among the cultural and political commentariat.
A self styled council estate Scouser, Nadine Vanessa Dorries entered Parliament in 2005 as the member for South Bedfordshire and rapidly gained a reputation as one of the more colourful inhabitants of the green benches, at one stage describing her blog about her Parliamentary activities as,
” …70% fiction and 30% fact!”
A comment she later dismissed as a joke.
She also survived the exposure of the fact she had employed her daughter on a salary of over £40,000 as an office manager [at the time the daughter in question lived ninety six miles away from the MP’s office] and the later employment of her sister as her “senior secretary” on a salary of between £30,000–35,000, as well as various other scrapes over her activities on Social Media.
However, perhaps her highest profile escapade was absconding from Parliament without the permission of the Conservative Party whips to take part in the November 2012 series of “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.”
Ms Dorries pocketed a fee reputed to be just over £20k, the price of which was temporary suspension of the Tory whip and speculation in the media that she might defect to UKIP.
In spite of this, by the Summer of 2021 she had risen to the rank of junior minister in the Department of Health [at the beginning of her working life she had trained as a nurse] and most political commentators would probably have thought that, given her chequered record, that was as far as Ms Dorries career in politics would go.
However, forced into a reshuffle by the disastrous response to the crisis in Afghanistan by then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Prime Minister Boris Johnson shocked both seasoned Westminster observers, and the culture sector, by appointing Nadine Dorries to the cabinet as Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS]. The department once dubbed “the Ministry of Fun” when it was created by John Major.
While it was possible to joke that, after her appearance on “I’m a Celebrity…” where she had famously been required to eat Ostrich anus, the closest Ms Dorries had come to culture was eating a yoghurt, in fact she did actually possess a number of qualifications for the post.
For a start she is the author of a number of best selling novels, albeit they have received generally awful reviews.
Reviewing Dorries epic of the Irish diaspora “The Four Streets” for the New Statesman Sarah Ditum wrote,
“In the face of such awfulness, I put on my best Oirish burr and say: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.”
She was also a longstanding critic of the Conservative party’s bugbear the BBC.
But perhaps most importantly, at least as far as the Prime Minister’s Office in 10 Downing Street was concerned, Nadine Dorries was a fanatical Brexiteer and evangelical in her support of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and all his works, including his Tory base pleasing culture war programme, designed to provoke the trendy, “woke”, lefties.
Indeed, in late December 2017 Ms Dorries had previewed what the culture sector could now expect when she tweeted,
“Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and supressing free speech. Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.”
As the new Secretary of State settled into the impressive Edwardian office block at 100 Parliament Street which the DCMS shares with Her Majesties Revenue and Customs, one of the first decisions she faced was what to do about the listing of the Dorman Long Tower?
While she has been criticised for being perhaps too quick to defend the statues of slaver and imperialists, the, perhaps more significant, monument to the working people of the north east, the Dorman Long Tower, would receive no tweet in its defence from the new Secretary of State.
The decision of Nadine Dorries was to delist.
Teesworks were informed of the decision officially by e-mail at 13.37 on 16 September. Parties had been informed unofficially by the DCMS earlier.
The e-mail trail released so far does not shed much light on the discussions within the DCMS in those first hours of the tenure of Nadine Dorries.
However, two things are clear.
First, seemingly driven by the need to achieve the delisting, Mayor Houchen and Teesworks were using the self declared deadline of 10.00am on 16 September as a lever to put pressure on the Secretary of State and were applying such pressure as they could through the back channels of direct e-mails and text messages to officials.
Secondly, clearly to the chagrin of Mayor Houchen, and perhaps also to the DCMS, Historic England had not wavered from its advice to list the Dorman Long Tower Grade 2.
Disingenuously, the official letter confirming the delisting, signed off by Culture Secretary Dorries, did not mention that in spite of the “new information”, Historic England had maintained their advice maintain the Grade 2 listing.
Instead, there was a nudge and a wink in the drafting suggesting Historic England might even be in agreement with Ms Dorries decision to delist.
“With the benefit of Historic England’s latest advice and the evidence contained within the review request, the Secretary of State is, on balance, persuaded of the arguments in favour of delisting Dorman Long Tower…”
the letter stated.
In a further win for Mayor Houchen and Teesworks, Secretary of State Dorries also stated she did not want to exercise the option to attach a consultation period to the decision.
No reason for the decision not to consult was given. However, a reason can be suggested.
The only way to save the Dorman Long Tower now would be for campaigners like Nick Taylor to seek and immediate Judicial Review of the decision.
The e-mails make clear the Mayor’s team was prepared for this eventuality, perhaps even expecting it.
However, no such application was forthcoming.
Judicial Reviews are risky and expensive and, unless a benefactor is in place, usually require fund raising. The campaigners to save the Dorman Long had simply run out of time.
This was quite probably the intention of announcing the delisting without including the time to make a wider consultation. A consultation period would have attracted contributions, not just from local campaigners, but also from expert bodies, such as the 20th Century Society.
Such a breathing space would also have given campaigners time to fundraise for potential legal action.
The e-mails and other records released so far, do not include the reaction of Historic England staff to what to an objective outsider looks very much like a stitch up between mayor Houchen and the DCMS.
As the news of the proposed demolition circulated campaigners on both sides of the argument took up positions.
For Mayor Houchen the Dorman Long Tower was no longer a heritage building to be preserved if possible, but was a “rotting coal bunker”.
Meanwhile the former Labour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, used Twitter to express her anger, and in doing so placed mayor Houchen at the centre of the story, and not in a good way,
“Wow. So that’s it.” she commented,
“Ben Houchen’s Teesworks will be demolishing the historic Dorman Long tower and losing one of the last iconic industrial landmarks on Teesside.”
However, Ms Turley also acknowledged the reality of the legal mechanism chosen to see off the Tower.
“No route for Redcar and Cleveland council to appeal.” she added.
Cleveland and Redcar Councillor, Vincent Smith, who had set up a petition to save the Dorman Long Tower, pointed to the response to various petitions set up online as highlighting the strength of feeling in the local community, and said:
“The Dorman Long tower is an historic landmark and a much loved manifestation of our steel heritage and is specifically recognised in [the council’s] Local Plan policy.”
“Sadly it seems this important building will be demolished, without planning permission and without any consultation or discussion with local people.”
He then suggested that the planning playing field might not have been altogether level,
“This survey that has been carried out [the Atkins report] has been carried out on behalf of people who want to demolish the tower.” he observed pointedly.
Not that the council was ever likely to act to save the tower in any case. Acknowledging the real politick of the situation Council Leader Mary Lanigan commented,
“If we did what some [campaigners] are asking us to do, and that failed, the
South Tees Development Corporation could sue this council because of the delay.”
Mayor Houchen now issued a triumphalist press release which in the campaigning style of the Boris Johnson Conservative Party, appeared designed to “own the Lib’s”.
“Following the submission of an appeal on Sunday the 12th of September, I can now confirm Historic England and the new Secretary of State have overturned the listing of Dorman Long Tower.”
The Mayor was quoted as saying, adding,
“Approving our appeal was the first decision of the new Secretary of State, this goes to show just how important the successful redevelopment of the Redcar former steelworks site is to everyone in government.”
The Mayor then got in his retaliation against the heritage campaigners who had had the temerity not to support his vision,
“This reverses the decision on its Grade II listing made after an application by local activists that, if allowed to stand, would have cost the taxpayer in excess of £9million.”
the Mayor claimed, using the tried and tested trigger word for the political right, “activists”.
He then laid out an almost apocalyptic vision of what would have happened had the Dorman Long tower been saved.
“That’s money that would not be spent on the creation of jobs, the NHS, transport and other important services. Worse than that, it would have cost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds of investment that we were – and still are – trying to bring to the site where Dorman Long Tower currently stands.”
To maintain the footballing analogy Mayor Houchen then went in, studs up, at Historic England.
“Historic England has accepted that the listing was a mistake, it was made by a junior officer who agreed the listing without ever seeing the structure itself. The application that was made was inaccurate, incomplete and misleading and would have put the progress and jobs at risk.”
Unfortunately that part of Mayor Houchen’s press release, as well as his earlier assertion that Historic England had acted with Nadine Dorries to overturn the listing, failed the Blackadder Test.
That is the test of a public position inspired by Captain E Blackadder’s succinct analysis of the pre World War One theory of deterrence based on military alliances.
In short, that part of Mayor Houchen’s statement was bollocks.
The claim that the listing was a mistake and that Historic England had accepted that the listing was a mistake and then overturned it is simply not true.
It is the legal position that the final decision was that of Secretary of State Dorries alone, while at no point in the e-mail traffic recorded by the DCMS, Historic England, or Mayor Houchen’s own authority, and obtained by thePipeLine under the Freedom of Information Act, does Historic England come even close to admitting the listing was a “mistake”.
Indeed, one outspoken email from a Historic England officer sent in the early evening of 17 September 2021 barely a day ahead of the demolition asked [our italics],
“Is there anything we can do about this total misrepresentation of our by the book‐the‐book actions?“
So strong was the reaction to the mayors false claim that the organisation was stung into pushing back in public against Mayor Houchen, stating [our italics],
“We were able to visit the site and, after further assessment, we confirmed our
previous advice that the tower merits consideration for listing at Grade II.”
Historic England was maintaining this stance in private too.
In response to an enquiry from a journalist at the Telegraph the Historic England communications team e-mailed explaining adamantly,
“No, the listing was not a mistake.”
The e-mail reiterated that as far as Historic England was concerned,
“We advised that the building should be listed at Grade II, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) agreed and the building was listed. Following a review of the information our recommendation remained the same, however DCMS, which takes the decision on all listing cases, has decided to remove its listed status.”
In other words, Historic England never departed from its initial assessment that the Dorman Long Tower merited listing, and that the decision to de-list was that of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and nobody else.
It is especially notable that for an organisation which often has the reputation of not picking fights in public, and without attacking Mayor Houchen by name, the public stance of Historic England carried the unmistakable message that the mayor had deliberately misrepresented what had happened over the Dorman Long Tower for his own reasons.
Put bluntly, the Conservative Party’s elected Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen, had lied about Historic England to the media and public.
Nonetheless, with no judicial review forthcoming in the early hours of Sunday 18 September 2021 the Dorman Long Tower and three other nearby industrial structures, were blown up in a controlled explosion.
With the dust from explosions barely settled the Atkins report was finally published for independent scrutiny on 20 September and when the Twitter Account associated with the expert website Something Concrete + Modern published its analysis it became clear why the mayor and his team had sat on the report for the duration of the listing row.
The team of experts, which chronicles the modernist architecture and architects who transformed the industrial and townscapes of the north east after World War Two, concluded that the Atkins report was “threadbare”, that it lacked evidence from key tests rendering its conclusions about the carbonisation of the Tower’s concrete unreliable, and that Mayor Houchen’s figure of £8-9 million to secure the future of the Tower was nothing more than an “unqualified ball park figure”.
Neither was there justification in the report for the view put by Mayor Houchen that the Tower would have to be demolished within twenty years. They concluded the evidence put forward merely suggested that the structure would require further structural work within that period.
Rubbing salt into the mayor’s wounds, it was also pointed out that the money saved by cancelling the demolition, with a small extra investment, coupled with the kind of match funding from the National Lottery which is commonplace in such projects, could have seen the Dorman Long Tower retained as a landmark heritage building for close to a generation.
However, perhaps the most damning conclusion was that Mayor Houchen may have misrepresented the safety issues connected to the Tower.
The idea that the Tower was unsafe had been a prime justification for the haste with which the demolition had been undertaken, however,
“The [Atkins] report notes there were no imminent risk of collapse suggesting no safety reasons for the rapid demolition (the key reason given for the rush) Instead @BenHouchen and [MP for the site] @JacobYoungMP continued up until the last moment that it was unsafe. A statement that is categorically untrue.”
the Something Concrete analysis concluded.
Catherine Croft, director of the expert conservation group the 20th Century Society also issued a statement reaching a broader, but equally condemnatory conclusion,
“This case is an example of how not to take irreversible decisions about heritage. Decision making has been extremely rushed, there has been no time for informed public debate, and many expert bodies, including the C20 Society have not been able to make their views known before a significant historic structure has been reduced to rubble.”
The statement added,
“It’s a very bad start for the new Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).”
The web site North East Bylines highlighted the potential political risks to Mayor Houchen for apparently playing so fast and loose with the truth in trying to drive, then justify the unseemly haste with which the Dorman Long Tower had been dispatched.
However, the news website concluded that in political terms the mayor had won.
“In the minds of his supporters,” the website argued ” if Houchen has to twist things to secure victory against those he claims wish to run this area down, then so be it. And for that reason we can expect that, even though the figure of £9 million has been debunked, it will continue to be repeated. As will the myth of the junior employee at Historic England. And the cost savings to local taxpayers and the NHS. And conservation costs jobs.”
Meanwhile, in an indication of the chilling effect such cases can have at Historic England, an officer suggested in an internal e-mail that the organisation should give more publicity to COIL’s [Certificates of Immunity from Listing]. These are the controversial counterparts to listing whereby an applicant can apply to Historic England to prevent the listing of a building. An increase in the use of these devices might reduce the number of confrontations with developers, even Government, but it is questionable how good they would be for the nation’s heritage?
One year on, with the Dorman Long Tower and Teesside’s role at the forefront of the steel industry, largely a matter of historical record, photographs and fading memories, rather than physical memory in the landscape, critics of Mayor Houchen will be looking beyond the blasted concrete of September 2021 at the string of broadly unaccountable, if legal, financial deals exposed by Private Eye magazine among others, and wondering what else about the development of the Teesside Freeport may yet emerge; prised from the lack of transparency and media smoke and mirrors, which now characterise the project?
Meanwhile, in July 2022 GE Renewables pulled out of the Teesworks project.
Mayor Huchen responded to the apparent setback in a characteristically punchy way telling LM Wind’s parent company GE Renewables,
“If you snooze you lose.”
Meanwhile, the Northern Echo, which has often been accused of acting as Mayor Houchin’s media mouthpiece, quoted Mayor as saying,
“As we showed yesterday with our ground breaking on SeAH’s mammoth £400million offshore wind facility, bringing 2,250 well-paid, good-quality jobs, the site has entered a new phase, with huge areas across the vast 4,500 acres, remediated and investor-ready. This includes that land earmarked for GE.”
So there it is.
The Dorman Long Tower was the sacrifice to ensure the land could become “remediated and investor ready”.
Of course, in the context of industrial investment, boom and later bust, the small footprint of the landmark historic building would have been a constant reminder that today’s investment opportunity can also become tomorrow’s post industrial wasteland.
And it is still not known for sure why the crabs are dying, but an independent survey commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective (NEFC), with funding from The Fishmongers Company and carried out by scientists at Newcastle University with the support of other academics from Durham, Hull and York, does now lay the blame on pyridine.
The Newcastle work shows that the chemical is highly toxic to shellfish in far lower concentrations than previously thought, and that it was most likely released into the North Sea during dredging operations to facilitate the development of the Teesside Freeport.
Apart from the loss to heritage, the natural environment and the fishing economy of the North East, what will most concern archaeologists, ecologists and environmental campaigners, will be that the demolition of the Dorman Long Tower and the suspected poisoning by pyridine of the North East’s shellfish, have taken place under existing heritage and environmental rules.
Rules which Chancellor Kwazi Kwarteng and Prime Minister Liz Truss have announced in the Treasury Growth Plan that they wish to loosen, or do away with entirely. All in the name of the kind of rapid growth which Mayor Ben Houchen has been pursuing on the south bank of the Tees.
The dead crabs and dynamited heritage of Teesside may just be a preview of what is to come.
thePipeLine asked the Tees Valley Combined Authority a series of questions based on the content of this article, including whether Mayor Ben Houchen now accepted his claims about Historic England having made a mistake over the listing of the Dorman Long Tower were not true.
We also asked if the Mayor would apologise to the staff of Historic England for misrepresenting their actions?
We received no reply.
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