Port will survive smelter closure blow, vows boss

Port of Blyth.
Port of Blyth.

PORT of Blyth bosses are confident no jobs will be lost as a result of the pending closure of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium plant at nearby Lynemouth.

They even hold out the hope that some workers set to be laid off will find alternative work on the thriving estuary.

Business has been growing at the port throughout the recession, and its commissioners are constantly planning for expansion.

They are in talks about using the old Blyth power station site, possibly for the offshore wind sector, viewing such a move as an expansion rather than just a relocation from the other side of the river.

A plan drawn up a decade ago by the old South East Northumberland and North Tyneside Regeneration Initiative (Senntri) to transfer the whole port operation across the river has been dropped in a consultants’ report for the county council aimed at shaping land use for years to come.

Concern has been voiced by county Labour group leader and Blyth councillor Grant Davey that some land on the south bank that could be used to attract businesses has instead been earmarked for housing.

Port chief executive Martin Lawlor says the operation has grown since the Senntri plan was drawn up, making such a move unlikely in the foreseeable future.

An industrial river was seen as more valuable for work generation than other uses and deep-water industrial sites were quite rare, he said.

Mr Lawlor added: “The closure of the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter is a blow to the port and indeed to the whole of the region.

“However, due to the port’s diverse trade base, no redundancies are anticipated, and future growth is expected.

“We are in a good position, but it will be a blow next year, no question, when the Alcan smelter closes.

“But it’s a setback that we’ll continue to recover from.”

The port works with the county council to attract industry in initiatives such as the Blyth Estuary Renewable Energy Zone and that has proved successful, said Mr Lawlor.

Two examples of that success are boat builder Alnmaritec, which moved to Blyth from Alnwick 18 months ago with about a dozen employees and now has 200, and Sheffield company NTL.

“In the light of the Alcan decision, if there are any initiatives that can come out of that closure – the likes of an enterprise zone – that will help us attract further companies to the estuary,” he said.

He said he envisaged that Alcan workers about to be made redundant having skills needed on the river.

“There’s a full range of jobs around the estuary – anything from administration to welders,” said Mr Lawlor.

“Some are skills which are being lost in the Alcan closure.”

More than 500 people work around the port, and there are other jobs linked to it in occupations such as haulage, imports and exports.

This year it is estimated the port will handle 1.7 million tonnes of cargo.

Blyth deals with timber products, dry bulks such as coal, grain and cement, and containers, as well as metals.

It is also at the forefront of the renewable energy sector and that is growing rapidly.

Mr Lawlor added: “We have such a diverse trade base now, so that if any one sector is quieter, we have managed to attract more from other areas.

“For example, some of the sectors linked to the construction industry – the likes of aggregates – have been quieter, but then again we have had other areas like wind turbine components which have been very buoyant.

“We have been really pleased that we have come on in leaps and bounds since 2000 really.

“We are in a good position.”