I think it already is special… we have just been left in the Stone Age.”

This was the response from Helen,* a social worker who had lived in Redcar nearly all her life when she was posed with the question “what makes Redcar special?”

Helen was one of the many voices we heard in Redcar when a team of researchers across IPPR and IPPR North ran a two-day participatory workshop to discuss how local communities envision a ‘levelled up’ Redcar. The workshop is part of a major IPPR and IPPR North research project, Progressive Levelling Up, that will design a blueprint to rebalance wealth, power and opportunity between and within regions across the UK. As part of the research, our teams have held workshops in Hastings, Redcar, and Stoke-on-Trent.

Redcar is a proud industrial town nestled between the built-up industry around the Tees and the Cleveland countryside. Redcar grew as the iron and steel industries did; after the discovery in 1850 of iron ore in the nearby Eston Hills, it expanded rapidly from small fishing hamlets into a prospering seaside town. ‘We built the world’, runs the saying on Teesside; Redcar’s steelworks were central to that story, building everything from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Churchill’s war rooms. In the 20th century, the petrochemical industry would also expand locally creating good jobs with high wages.

The closure of the last Redcar blast furnace in 2015 was a traumatic shock; around 3,000 jobs were lost, whether directly or in the supply chain. Since then, the site has been the political focus of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, establishing Teesworks, a 4,500-acre industrial zone and the UK’s biggest freeport. The jobs promised are primarily in green industries – carbon capture and storage, green and blue hydrogen, and wind turbine production. The project represents a test case for the government’s levelling up agenda and an emotive issue for residents.

Levelling up is undoubtedly needed in Redcar. The unemployment rate is persistently high, and average pay is low. Child poverty sits at 39.3 per cent, well above the national average and even higher in more deprived areas such as Eston, Grangetown and South Bank. The unitary authority borough council, led by a coalition of independent and Liberal Democrat councillors, struggles to meet its capacity to address local needs. Our workshop discussion touched on the different levels of local government and how connected residents felt with them.

We hosted a citizen conversation, using participative research techniques to listen and reflect on what the citizens of Redcar want for their community. Breaking up into small groups and armed with flip chart paper, pens, and some imagination, we asked how they viewed their area and what they would like to see in Redcar’s future. We asked about their understanding of levelling up, their likes and dislikes of Redcar, what were the strengths of the community, what challenges they face, and what they want Redcar to be like by 2030. These questions prompted rich and enthusiastic discussions among the residents - there was a clear desire for change in Redcar.

As the workshop progressed, citizens identified four key themes and areas for action on levelling up:

  • Residents did not feel democracy was working for Redcar and strongly believed people should have more power to shape the local area. They wanted a direct say in investment aimed at town centre regeneration, making views heard on the future of transport, improved services to support the elderly, and more activities for younger people to help combat anti-social behaviour. Our participants agreed that greater involvement of local people’s voices in shaping Redcar was necessary to improve the lives of local people.
  • Citizens wanted Redcar’s nature to be the heart of plans for the town, with a tourism offer emphasising its local beauty and wildlife. Most people reflected that they wished for the town to be more beautiful, accentuating the beach. The most frequently discussed idea was a traditional pier, like that of nearby Saltburn. This was an idea that residents had raised for over a decade and felt strongly about, but they felt the local council had not been responsive.
  • People wanted meaningful opportunities for local people to get good jobs. There is a sense that currently things don’t work, with poor education provision and the only available jobs tending to be low-paid jobs. While some residents were optimistic about developments like Teesworks, others were more sceptical, feeling it didn’t make up for past neglect or that people lacked the skills to take part in the renewable energy sector. There was agreement though, that better access to skills training, and regenerating Redcar’s high street could help the local economy thrive and create job opportunities.
  • From Skinningrove to Saltburn, Loftus to Lazenby, it was clear that public transport needed improvement to improve connectivity between towns and villages and improve access to better employment opportunities and public services. The existing bus services do not meet the local people's needs, resulting in some having to walk long distances or pay for expensive taxis. Participants wanted more regular buses and liked the idea of community busses, especially for the elderly living in more remote areas.

Levelling up from the community up is already happening in parts of Redcar. We heard from three grassroots organisations helping residents in need during the workshop. These were Footprints in the Community, who run a range of projects to tackle poverty and isolation; Future Regeneration of Grangetown (FROG), who deliver community-led regeneration and training in a particularly deprived area; and South Bank Community Land Trust, who are creating affordable community-owned housing and employment. All have relatively good relations with the council but relayed that despite their positive impact in the area, there is only so much that their organisations could do to keep local communities afloat. These organisations have limited resources, and demand for their services is rising – especially amid a cost of living crisis. Levelling up with the community at the centre helps restore community spirit and offers local people some respite from the hardships they are currently facing.

One participant declared the town a 'forgotten gem', to which others eagerly nodded in agreement. Despite the challenges many residents of Redcar are up against, including high unemployment, deprivation, and council funding cuts, they are proud of where they live and see it as a special place. Levelling up should build on this sense of pride, the area’s natural beauty, and the work grassroots organisations are doing to serve the community so that Redcar can truly live up to its potential.

Amreen Qureshi is a Research Fellow at IPPR North, based in Manchester.

Luke Myer is a Research Fellow at IPPR North, based in Redcar.

*Helen is a pseudonym