When Rio Tinto shut its smelter doors in 2012, it was a major blow to the town of Lynemouth in England’s north-east. But a strong closure plan and the ingenuity of the local community are helping breathe new life into the region.

In the four years since the smelter closed, a surprising array of new businesses has emerged in the town – from concrete manufacturers to artisan chocolatiers.

Closing the gates

When the Lynemouth Aluminium Smelter began operating in 1972, it was well placed to supply the UK’s steadily growing demand for the metal. Located in England’s industrial heartland, the smelter benefited from abundant supplies of locally mined coal (providing low-cost power), nearby port facilities, and a skilled workforce.

But four decades later, it was a different picture. Spiralling energy costs, new EU environmental regulations and market fluctuations in metal prices meant the operation was no longer economic. After a period of strategic review and consultation with employees, hot metal production ended.

At its peak, the smelter employed 650 people and was estimated to support a further 3,000 people indirectly. So the site’s closure, after 40 years of operating, was likely to have a major economic impact on the region.

[While] Lynemouth’s closure was a great shame, it has opened up new doors

Adrian Platts, former Rio Tinto employee

Rio Tinto worked hard to mitigate the impact of redundancy on its highly skilled workforce by providing a full and varied support package. Former employee Adrian Platts found the support invaluable, taking several courses that were offered to him and ultimately completing an apprenticeship in carpentry. Adrian has since set up his own joinery company, Joinade, and says that while “Lynemouth’s closure was a great shame, it has opened up new doors. The new business is going really well.”

Within the first 12 months, more than 90 per cent of the workforce had either been re-employed or had formally retired. Most were in new jobs, with local businesses keen to take on the former smelter employees, who they recognised as being highly skilled and having a strong safety culture.

Belinda Murphy was the HR manager at Lynemouth during this period and recalls this rate being achieved “… [through] sheer graft. All of the team were focused on doing the absolute best they could for the former Lynemouth employees.”

Managing what we
leave behind

Managing what we
leave behind

Although it may extend over decades, mining is a temporary land use. So it’s critical we have an effective plan in place to manage what we leave behind.

Although it may extend over decades, mining is a temporary land use. So it’s critical we have an effective plan in place to manage what we leave behind.

As with all of Rio Tinto’s operational sites, Lynemouth was required to prepare a “life cycle plan”, which included a plan for closure.

“The Lynemouth closure plan was an important and useful tool in managing the closure process”, said John McCabe, former director of Rio Tinto’s Regional Economic Development (RED) team.

The RED team was charged with safely decommissioning and remediating the smelter, and finding responsible investors to redevelop the site. The team worked with a wide range of stakeholders to develop a lasting positive legacy in the Lynemouth area by attracting new investment and supporting local communities. The aim was to not only leave the site itself in a condition compatible with subsequent land uses, but also to provide lasting benefits to the community impacted by the site’s closure.

Find out more about Rio Tinto’s approach to closure in our 2015 Sustainable development report.

Image: Rio Tinto’s RED team decommissioned and remediated the smelter.

New beginnings

Adrian’s business is one of many thriving in the area.

New manufacturing ventures range from producing ready-mix concrete to creating exquisite artisan chocolates. Other new businesses include a fitness centre, wooden pallet maintenance and storage, a pre-cast concrete producer, and a social enterprise hub for textile weaving.

Finding a responsible investor for the Lynemouth site was of paramount importance to Rio Tinto. There is a long history of industry in the north-east of England; it was a logical step, therefore, to seek a buyer for the site that would create jobs for an already skilled workforce.

The property management firm, Harworth Estates, which specialises in the remediation, restoration and regeneration of brownfield sites, was a natural fit, already owning a number of other brownfield sites in the area. It was first established to manage the many UK coal properties that had been decommissioned and now has a portfolio of more than 200 projects. The company pays particular attention to strengthening local economies and improving the lives of local people.

“Politicians were all worried about what was going to happen [at Lynemouth] – it was a good move to pick the right company with a background in this business,” said Eddie Peat, director of Natural Resources at Harworth Estates.

Rio Tinto was instrumental in securing some of the new tenants for the former smelter site, too. One of these – Lynx Precast – designs, manufactures and installs pre-cast concrete beams for the construction industry. “Rio Tinto stuck their neck out to support Lynx Precast,” said managing director, Andy Teasdale.

“Critically, they made it possible for us to move [there] whilst the decommissioning process was ongoing. Rio Tinto was unable to offer us a long-term lease prior to selling the site, but their level of support gave us the confidence to go ahead and invest over £1 million in developing our new business.”

Lynx Precast, in turn, attracted ready-mix concrete producers, H-Mix, to develop their plant at the site and the two companies now work together.

The Lynemouth operations also included 1,785ha of arable land and Rio Tinto was fortunate to find a buyer with a similarly strong reputation to Harworth Estates. The new owners of the farming portfolio, the Crown Estate, are one of the largest landowners in Britain and are well-known for their responsible approach to land stewardship.

Lynx Precast Lynx Precast
One of the new tenants, Lynx Precast, who design, manufacture and install pre-cast concrete beams for the construction industry

Rio Tinto funding was vital to keeping our organisation going

Andrew Gooding, manager of Lynemouth’s Community Trust

A change of identity A change of identity
Kenspeckle Northumbrian Confectionery supply artisan chocolates to Selfridges department store in London

From costumes to confectionery

Over the 40 years that the smelter operated, Rio Tinto played a major role in supporting local charities, voluntary organisations and other good causes. At the time of closure in March 2012, Rio Tinto launched a legacy fund to help the community become more self-sustaining in the long term.

By December 2013, the fund had donated around £650,000 to local initiatives. Projects that received funding included the refurbishment of two science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) labs, and the purchase of IT equipment for schools. A family support centre and a new community centre to assist people with autism also received vital funds, and play equipment was purchased for children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Economic development projects also received funding. These included the regeneration of the town centre and maritime centre at nearby Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, and the launch of three new social enterprises in Lynemouth.

“Rio Tinto funding was vital to keeping our organisation going,” says Andrew Gooding, manager of Lynemouth’s Community Trust.

Kenspeckle Northumbrian Confectionery was one of the social enterprises to be supported through the Community Trust, and has gone on to supply artisan chocolates to Selfridges department store in London.

Another, Weave, celebrates the region’s rich heritage in the textile industry, helping local textile designers and manufacturers produce and market their own creations. Weave proudly counts international toy store, Hamleys, as a major client, providing theatrical uniforms for their staff worldwide.

“It is early days [after the smelter’s closure], but we are in the business of helping Lynemouth find a new identity,” Andrew said. “We want to restore pride within the local community”.