BOSSES at Rio Tinto Alcan insist that, as bleak as the future is for staff there, they are better off than they would have been had the Lynemouth plant been sold off to an investor offering “a glimmer of hope” last year.
That assessment that the forthcoming closure is the lesser of two evils came after the multinational company’s regional economic development director, John McCabe, was asked at a public meeting last week if financial support would be available for a buyer of the next-door power station.
He said: “There will be a pretty significant level of investment made available by Rio Tinto, but we have got to be very careful.
“This time last year there was a glimmer of hope for the smelter.
“Organisations got in touch, and some came to look at the site.
“They didn’t think it was credible as a business proposition and would need significant financial support from Rio Tinto Alcan and also from the government and a potential option on the power station.
“One man operated a smelter in Holland. It was bigger but employed fewer people. Lynemouth had 160 more people than him.
“The first thing he would have to do is shave the head-count, then think about how to get other employment costs down.
“Our analysis of that business proposition was that he was quite vulnerable, and the plant in Holland went into receivership just before Christmas.
“Had he gone ahead, 160 people would have been made redundant and those left behind would have had their terms and conditions negotiated down.
“I can guarantee that he would have invested less than we would to close it down because he is not doing that work in Holland.
“It was right that we didn’t pursue that.
“We’ve got to be very careful about these expressions of interest.”
However, Mr McCabe said the company was at an “advanced stage” in talks with a potential buyer for the power station but that they were taking longer than expected due to it having to be separated from the smelter it had operated alongside for 40 years.
He said: “It potentially needs to be regulated in a slightly different way than it has been regulated in the past, and we are talking to regulators and the National Grid and Ofgen.
“We are not able to discuss who that third party is, although they are a reputable and sustainable business, committed long term to running the power station initially on coal and then converting it to a biomass-fuelled facility.
The public meeting, held at the power station site, was attended by 11 people.
It had been called to discuss what could be done with the smelter site following its closure.
Mr McCabe told those present that he will be remaining at Lynemouth indefinitely to oversee the dismantling of the aluminium operation.
He said: “I don’t have an end date. The worst thing we can do is go straight into knocking buildings down to find the county council islooking for a building the same shape as the one we knocked down yesterday.”
He added: “We are committed to working with the community and stakeholders on what we can offer to investors.
“We need to establish what we as a community want to achieve.
“If it was a Tesco, it might employ 350 people at a fairly low wage level, but a more high-tech manufacturer might employ fewer people but pay more.
“Do we want the number of jobs or the quality? Ideally, we want both.
“We have to ask ourselves what will south east Northumberland look like in ten years’ time.”