On Tuesday evening, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, Simon Clark, tweeted that he was writing in The Times about “why we urgently need to re-establish the true facts about the Teesside Freeport and the deeply politicised attempts to destroy it”.
As soon as they saw it, Tees Valley Monitor tweeted that they were looking forward to it, which some people took to mean that they intended to respond. Now they feel obliged, so as not to disappoint. Come this morning, and the publication of Clarke’s article, they regretted ever mentioning it.
The problem, in a nutshell, is this. It is exceptionally difficult to make intelligent comment about expressed opinion that is just unbelievably stupid. Sorry, but that’s what it is. Clarke demonstrates absolutely no interest in making any kind of rational appraisal of the facts; he just sets out to slay his demons. So, enter the ‘left wing newspaper’, the ‘anti-growth coalition’ and the ‘green party activist’, all allegedly seeking to undermine the regeneration being brought to fruition by Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen. Frankly, Jeremy Clarkson’s rant about Meghan Markle had more gravitas than this.
This is not just an issue of general interest for Clarke; this directly affects his own constituents in various ways. So, he begins with a prolonged bout of hand wringing – “a die-off event devastated the local fishing industry, a small group of hardworking men and women working as a tight-knit community … I know the pain they have endured.”
The fishers at the forefront of the campaign
Of course, the point of his pious insincerity is to try to drive a wedge between the local fishers and those who are protesting against capital dredging in the Tees. Awkward for him that the fishers themselves remain at the forefront of this campaign. It was the fishers, and no one else, who, in December, raised a legal action to stop the free port dredging against the Marine Management Organisation (who licensed the operation).
Research by Newcastle University
But the protest is growing and has attracted a number of other interest groups. There are undoubtedly a number of Green Party activists among them. However, Clarke introduces us to only one of them – “Green Party member and activist, Gary Caldwell.” That, to be precise, is marine biologist Dr Gary Caldwell of Newcastle University. Refuting the evidence presented by Dr Caldwell to the EFRA committee in October is too much of an effort for Clarke. Much easier just to try to discredit the source. And to omit the awkward fact that Green party member and activist, Gary Caldwell, didn’t just rock up on Teesside and offer to help out, he is part of a team made up of scientists from five universities, commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective to investigate the cause of the die off. The North East Fishing collective that’s made up of the same hard-working men and women of the local fishing industry whose pain Simon Clarke MP knows all about.
Clarke doesn’t mention the North East Fishing Collective and their work. This organisation was set up by local fishers in the wake of the initial die-off, who had been told by Defra officials in January 2022, just before they declared their own investigation closed, that if they wanted more evidence they would have to go and get it themselves.
So, they did. And because they did, the issue landed up in an EFRA Committee hearing in October 2022, where Dr Caldwell stole the show, so clear and precise was his presentation of evidence. For those who picture him as a militant glued to the M25, we recommend that they view the footage of that hearing. And anyone who still believes in Defra should watch the abject presentations by their representatives and see if they can find any clue about what scientific investigations those organisations are currently undertaking.
Clarke and Houchen
But it’s not only Clarke that is staying positive about the ‘hard-working men and women’ of the local fishing industry’. As he points out, Ben Houchen is doing the same:
“… and I know Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor, has called for more support for the local fishing community.”
What he doesn’t mention is that the local fishing community, in turn, is calling Ben Houchen quite a lot of things, none of them complimentary. This is because they can spot insincerity when they see it.
Then there’s the tricky issue of claims of subsequent die-off. Clarke is bold and unequivocal:
“Times readers may reasonably ask: Is the die-off continuing? Absolutely not. Indeed, the Environment Agency has confirmed several times that there have been no further incidents since that one-off event in October 2021.”
Let’s restate that. Defra claimed that the cause of the die-off was algal bloom. There may have been algal bloom at that time, although the evidence is patchy. But algal bloom is transient, and no evidence has been presented to indicate that there was any around when subsequent reports of die-off were made. Defra, and its partner agencies, have not, in fact, ‘confirmed that there have no further incidents’; what they have done is to insist that all subsequent die-off events were down to the weather. 2022, it seems, was a bad year for weather.
As for the anti-growth coalition, “[t]hey see cranes, jobs and investment and this doesn’t fit their narrative”. It gets better – “This anti-growth coalition can’t bear to see their former red wall stronghold bulldozed by Boris Johnson and now being rebuilt by the Conservatives, restoring pride, identity and purpose to one of our great industrial areas …”
Now wipe away that tear, before attempting to read any further.
We’ll start with investment. There is no arguing with the fact that Ben Houchen has managed to attract more levelling up funding than other metro mayors. He has been flavour-of-the-month at Westminster for quite some time now (as he was happy to inform Politics Home in 2021). What’s less talked about is that when he takes this regeneration funding and squanders it on ventures that achieve nothing, his enablers at Westminster do not ask any questions.
In a forthcoming article we examine the fortunes of Teesside Airport, which has had £70 million lavished on it by Houchen, but whose aviation business is now in dire straits.
As for developments at Teesworks, the arrangement is essentially that public money pays for remediation, while the profits from the sale of the site’s assets go, in large part, to developers. When leases are taken up, the majority of the revenue will go to those same developers.
And jobs? What jobs? No one, SeAH Wind included, has taken a lease on the site.
The major project currently being undertaken at Teesworks is the construction of the South Bank Quay. The main contractor is Northern Irish firm, Graham Construction. In 2018, local firm Able UK, produced plans for the construction of this quay. Able UK is a much larger player than Graham, but Houchen didn’t want them, even though it would have meant that a much larger proportion of the workforce on the project would have been local. It is, of course, difficult to predict whether Able would have experienced fewer health and safety issues on site than Graham.
What has caused Simon Clarke MP the most , however, is that “[r]eports blaming dredging at the local freeport have failed to mention that the devastating die-offs occurred in October 2021 – 11 months before dredging for the Teesside freeport started. Yet it is somehow still being blamed.”
The somehow is this. There is a sand bar at Tees mouth that requires regular dredging by the harbour authority, in order to keep the shipping lane open. Dredging was undertaken over a ten-day period at the end of September 2021, immediately prior to the die-off. There is a constant discharge of contaminated material from the Tees Estuary to this sand bar (one of Defra’s partner agencies, Cefas, monitors this at the dredge deposit site).
That regular dredging operation has never caused large-scale marine die off before, yet the evidence presented by the universities showed that the crustaceans were killed by the chemical pyridine. So what changed?
Basically, construction work. The site that is now Teesworks, which at various locations is saturated with pyridine, had been largely derelict for decades. Then construction and demolition started. Construction is well known to trigger movement of contaminated material on industrial sites, leading to the contamination at the sand bar being much greater than in previous years.
Which leaves only the supposed expertise in toxicology of the directors of the British Ports Association (BPA), who have been loudly supporting Defra and criticising those who have presented alternative findings: “The BPA says more than 5,000 dredge events would have had to have taken place in a single day for the conclusions stated in the report to hold any water.” He does not say how the BPA’s scientists came to this conclusion, although he does add, helpfully, that it represents more than 100 port members. Which is interesting, but it might have been more pertinent for him to have informed us how many scientists it employs. To be fair to Simon Clarke MP, his Times’ article is, in the end, a bold and spirited piece of complete nonsense. A piece about which the saying ‘the truth is another country’ could not be more apt, a characteristic shared by much of his previous work. And something which Tees Valley Monitor and North East Bylines have brought to the world’s attention before.