Sales administrator Kelly Green did not expect to be job hunting this month. Her employer, northern English iron and steel castings maker BondsHold, recorded sales of more than £20m as recently as 2017.
But the 20-year-old business has gone into administration because of the UK steel sector’s lack of profitability, a situation compounded by Brexit uncertainty. Most of the 219 workers at its plants in three communities — the isolated Alston in Cumbria, Crook in Co. Durham and the industrial Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire — have been made redundant.
The difficulties they face finding work will prove an early test for Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson as he seeks to keep his promise, both to voters in December’s general election and his new crop of northern MPs, of “levelling-up and spreading opportunity to every corner of our country”.
“At the time of need, where are the people who have some clout?” asked Ms Green, 36, a mother of two.
Ms Green worked at the Alston business, Bonds Precision Castings. Located in the Pennine hills, surrounded by wild moorland, the company not only provided 55 jobs in an area that is home to 2,000 people, it was the biggest employer in a 20-mile radius. The nearest places likely to offer work are at least 15 miles away along country lanes. The rail link was axed in 1976. Bus services are minimal. Many people do several jobs, a lot of them are self-employed.
Stephen Wilson, 54, a Bonds worker for 27 years, cannot drive. Nor can his two sons who worked there; one has lost his job, the other is still employed, for now. Mr Wilson’s wife Heidi, a part-time worker in the local Co-op supermarket, said the family was rooted in Alston. “We love it here,” she said. “[But] if nothing’s happened by the end of the month, we’re discussing leaving.”
The Crook foundry, a business dating back to 1868, was its town’s biggest manufacturing company. Any available jobs locally are likely to be part-time and low-paid.
BondsHold’s third plant, Bonds Heavy Castings in Scunthorpe, is definitely closing, costing 77 jobs. Administrators Deloitte said negotiations on the sale of the Alston and Crook sites were continuing. Around 34 workers remain in total, finishing orders.
“What we are witnessing in these places is the slow attrition of what is left of manufacturing jobs,” said John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional policy at University College London. “Where high-skilled jobs are emerging, they aren’t emerging in these places but in big cities. There’s still the opportunity for advanced manufacturing but more in the south-east than the north-east.”
Investment in towns like Alston and Crook was needed, he said, in “the everyday economy” — like social care, housing and high street revival.
Alston, Crook and Scunthorpe all have new Conservative MPs. Alston is in Penrith and the Border, a longtime Tory base. But in the latter two constituencies, North West Durham and Scunthorpe, Richard Holden and Holly Mumby-Croft’s victories were part of the dismantling of the “red wall” of former opposition Labour strongholds, where Mr Johnson said voters had “lent” him their support, and whose trust he pledged to repay.
Ms Green was among those who switched from Labour to Conservative for the first time. Her MP, Neil Hudson, has not been seen locally, she said. “I feel really let down.” Neither Mr Holden nor Mr Hudson responded to repeated requests for comment.
On a recent visit to Redcar, another northern seat the Tories took from Labour, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, said government help would involve investment in skills, transport and digital infrastructure, and in “making sure the businesses are there to create the jobs for those people to go to”.
The government’s £500m pledge to help restore rail lines would help connect people to jobs, he added. On the administration of BondsHold, privately owned by north-east businessman Paul Duncan, he said: “It’s difficult for me to comment on the circumstances of any individual company.”
In a Facebook post, Mr Holden said he, Mr Hudson and Ms Mumby-Croft, had met business minister Nadhim Zahawi to see if help could be given to avert administration, including loans at commercial rates, but this proved impossible.
“I just think we’re forgotten. We aren’t important enough,” Ms Green said.
In Alston, heritage lottery money has helped restore historic shop fronts since 2015. Yet in the same period its two bank branches have closed. The Bonds redundancies are already affecting the local economy, as laid-off employees economise. “It puts a lot of strain on local businesses,” said Sean Addison, proprietor of the High Plaice fish and chip shop.
Cumbria’s Labour councillor for Alston, Claire Driver, said the county council was looking at running IT courses in the town to help job hunters enhance their skills. But she said: “After nine years of austerity, statutory services [which councils are obliged to provide such as schools, social care and waste disposal] are the ones we have to focus on delivering.”
Locals feared that if the loss of Bonds jobs forced residents to leave, a likely consequence would be more holiday homes — which will weaken the community spirit that they said was Alston’s great strength.
“It’s the people themselves that make things happen here,” said Norman English, owner of the Mad Hatter hardware shop. “If something here works, it’s because the people make it work.”