NORTHUMBERLAND’S biggest private employer is to close with the loss of over 500 jobs, it was confirmed yesterday.
Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminium smelter at Lynemouth is to shut its hot metal section on March 29, with 323 of the site’s 515 workers from across all areas given 12 weeks notice that they are to be made redundant at the end of May.
Some operational activity in the smelter’s carbon and casting plants, which currently employ around 200 staff, will continue until later in the year.
A team of around 60 employees will remain on site beyond the closure of all operations to work on decommissioning and remediation.
But ultimately, all 515 staff face losing their jobs.
Yesterday’s announcement followed a 90-day consultation with trade unions and staff on the closure.
Jacynthe Côté, chief executive of Rio Tinto Alcan, said: “I am saddened by the closure of Lynemouth Smelter, but we have reached this decision only after a thorough strategic review of the plant and a fair and transparent consultation process.
“I have met with Lynemouth unions and staff members and I have great respect for the manner in which they have represented their colleagues during consultation.
“We will now focus on safely decommissioning the plant, working with our employees to mitigate the impact of redundancy on them and their families and partnering with all interested stakeholders on the future regional economic development of the Lynemouth site.
“We are in close contact with our customers to limit the impact on their businesses under the scope of our contractual agreements.”
The company has said it will work with other agencies including Northumberland County Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership, on the closure of smelting operations, as well as on the future use of the site and job creation.
A response group – with representatives from the company, the county council, JobCentre Plus and other bodies – is offering support for workers and staff in supply chain companies affected by the closure decision.
Rio Tinto Alcan has also said it will consider “credible expressions of third-party interest” in the site’s carbon and casting plants.
Talks on the sale of the company’s Lynemouth Power Station, where a further 111 people work, are ongoing with a potential buyer having come forward.
However that deal can not be concluded until regulations for its continued operation independent of the smelter are confirmed by the Government.
The company says it hopes to conclude these discussions in the coming months.
The closure announcement was last night greeted with sadness by one trade union which represents workers and politicians in the region.
Keir Howe, regional organiser with the GMB union, said: “After a difficult consultation process, no long-terms plans have emerged to save jobs at Alcan.
“Hundreds of GMB members will be faced with losing their job by the end of May and with the economy in the present state our members are worried there won't be enough jobs out there for them all.”
The union has vowed to continue to push the company to find a buyer for the site while staff work their notice.
Its regional organiser added: “Alcan has a hardworking and dedicated workforce which any potential buyer could benefit from.
“The loss of the smelter will be devastating for our members, their local communities and the region as a whole and it is time the government stepped in to assist in saving this site.
“This is the largest private sector employer in Northumberland and will be the first of many companies in the energy intensive industry that may be lost if the Government does not act.”
Coun Jeff Reid, leader of the county council, said: “The decision to close the smelter is devastating for the workforce and their families.
“Rio Tinto Alcan has been one of Northumberland’s major employers for the last 40 years and the loss of the smelter will have a major impact on the people and communities in south east Northumberland, as well as the wider economy.
“We will be working closely with Rio Tinto Alcan on longer-term plans for site remediation and economic development.”
Ronnie Campbell, Labour MP for Blyth Valley, said: “It is just another big loss to the North East.
“How we are going to pick up ourselves from this one, I don’t know, especially with the austerity going on at the moment.
“If it had been in London or Scotland or anywhere like that, it would have been replaced or looked after.
“But the North East, they – the Tories – just look at it and write it off.”
Rio Tinto’s ship unloading facility at the Port of Blyth will continue to operate for around 18 months.
It will be used to store and transport raw materials for the company’s Lochaber smelter in the Scottish Highlands until measures are put in place to allow them to be delivered to nearer that site.