Most of my working life was spent in and around London. However, the projects I worked on were nationwide, from shopping centres in Chester and Barnstaple to retail parades in Cambridge and Brighton, Offices in Poole and Manchester and industrial complexes in Cardiff and Scunthorpe.
Ah Scunthorpe. A holiday destination if ever there wasn’t one. That’s very unfair, of course and a sneery southerner should know better. Back when I discovered the subtle and barely evident charms of Scunthorpe it was 1984 and the industrial collapse that the Thatcher years exaggerated was climaxing in distressed communities and hollowed out businesses. One remedial measure the Government introduced were Enterprise Zones which gave tax and planning concessions, the aim being to stimulate the development of new businesses, in the hope they might replace the old. The steel works at Normanby Park had shut and the local authority for Scunthorpe applied for EZ status. It was the perfect opportunity and exactly the sort of thing that the Government had in mind, except…
Scunthorpe was a Labour council and the government was Tory. Not that politics had anything to do with it. Oh no, the Government had made it plain the decisions would be decided on need against a set of apolitical criteria…
The landscape, politically in this part of Humberside had the Scunthorpe Borough Council, centred on the town surrounded by the Glanford District Council, a rural donut around Scunthorope and as it happened very Tory. So, in one of those classic compromises that make the world work, a joint bid for EZ status was launched by the two councils centring on land in the two boroughs. In Scunthorpe that was easy – the now redundant steelworks. In Glanford…
Not so much. Not until a site which was iconic for all the wrong reasons in the Industrial history of Britain came up for sale.
In June 1974 a leak from the ammonia tanks ignited one Saturday afternoon, blasting the plant (though ironically not the ammonia storage cylinders) to smithereens. 28 people died and had it been a week day that number would have been exponentially higher. The plant was rebuilt with insurance money, then bought by a government backed joint venture between the National Coal Board and the Dutch State Mines to provide employment. Only…
The industrial process undertaken at Flixborough was to make something called caprolactum. This is the basic building block of nylon, then used to make many basic products such as shirts, sheets and tights (hose). But between the explosion and the point of reopening, the nylon market had collapsed and anyway cheaper versions of it were available from Poland.
Bum. The sparkling new factory was redundant and no one ever switched it on. The site had warehouses and offices as well as some complicated pipework and with a bit of cash and imagination could be turned into a starter industrial-cum-storage facility. All that was needed was a kickstart.
Glandford had its site to link up with Scunthorpe.
And somehow a city firm of lawyers was brought in to negotiate the agreement to buy the site and sort of the technicalities of the EZ application. If you’ve ever had to fill in a benefit claim form or similar you’ll understand how abstruse these things are. This was peachy. We spent weeks negotiating the deal with numerous counterparties. Our client was the Glanford District Council but everyone – the two JV partners, the NCB and Dutch State Mines, the government and Scunthorpe Borough Council all had legal teams.
Oh Joy! Oh Frabjous Day!! It was a bloody nightmare, trying to broker a practical and political compromise. I suppose like a mini Brexit only without the goodwill and humour. What added to the fun was the presence of two members of Glandford council who had been mandated to see the negotiations through. One, the Leader of the Council, Alderman Terry A, was a bluff, no nonsense self made business man who would have said ‘Trouble at T’Mill’ if there had been any left by then. He was so thoroughly a blue Tory that one asssumed he must have been dropped in a toilet as a youngster and been dyed by those toilet flush things that hang on the side of the bowl. The other, a deliberate counterpoint to Terry’s impatient approach, was Mrs McIver a diminutive Liberal with tight-packed curls and the most disconcerting negotiating strategy I have ever experienced: throughout months of meetings she knitted, like a latter day tricoteuse, one stitch for each concession.
I never did find out what she made
Given how long negotiations took I imagine it was at least a town hall cosy. Maybe she unpicked each days product on the train home only to start again when she could. I do know she never spoke in any meetings or breakouts, letting Terry rant and rave. Except once, when Terry was particularly voluble, berating the opposition for their stupidity, bloody-mindedness and general inability to see a good deal if one was stuck on a pole and inserted into the orifice of their choosing. He had taken to staking round the room, bellowing over people’s shoulders while they waited for the storm to blow out.
Usually, in these moments he ignored Mrs M but this time he stopped and, in a quieter voice said, “Well, Margaret, what do you think?’
Maybe it was the use of her Christian name or maybe she was just fed up but she put down her knitting and turned round to face the red faced bear. Still seated she looked up at him then down at his groin then up again. “Well Terry, I think people might be inclined to forgive you all this nonsense if you just remembered to dress yourself properly in the morning.” And with that she lent over and yanked his fly zip up before turning back to her knitting.