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Corby steels itself for a return to prosperity

Urban Regeneration - The closure of Corby's steel works was a devastating blow that cost the town 11,000 jobs. Now, 27 years later, ambitious plans are afoot to bring better prospects to the area.

WHEN it comes to urban regeneration few towns across the UK have a st ronger case than Corby.

Its designation as a new town in 1950 and its thriving steel industry seemed to be the sparks that would set off an explosive growth of the town.

Yet in 1979 the closure of the British Steel operations caused the town's unemployment figures to rise to 30 per cent with the loss of 11,000 jobs, sowing the seeds for the town's failure. As a new town Corby had been designed for a population of 100,000; when the steel jobs were lost this figure stalled at half that amount. This meant that Corby simply didn't work as it was intended and parts of the town slipped into deprivation.

'Corby was in need of intervention, ' says Bob Lane, chief executive of the North Northants Development Company, which is charged with overseeing the town's renaissance. 'Our strategy was that Corby needed growth to sort out its regeneration. If we can get growth moving then we can begin to attract in the new retail and leisure operators that are vital for regeneration. We hope to attract better quality jobs to the town.'

For Corby had been stuck in a vicious downwards spiral. Its population was too small to bring in major national retail and business tenants. Yet without these quality employers nobody was prepared to move there.

'We don't have any unemployment here really but the problem is that many of the jobs are relatively low paid and call for little skill. We would like them to get jobs in building trades, where they learn skills and get better pay, ' says Mr Lane.

In order to achieve this plans are being put together to start a construction academy on the Priors Hall housing site. The academy would have twin benefits of both providing training to get Corby residents into higher quality employment and also improve the supply of labour to deliver the town's grand regeneration plans.

'Part of the discussion about the section 106 negotiation for Priors Hall is about the provision of construction training.

Everyone recognises that here is going to be a shortage of all the key skills in the area because of the amount of construction that is going forward. At the moment there is a discussion going on with all the partners on construction training because everyone is worrying about this, ' says Mr Lane.

The Learning and Skills Council as well as the regional development agency are also involved in the scheme, which is intended to ensure that as much of the investment made in the area remains in the local economy rather than to nomadic workers, com ing in and scooping up work before moving on to the next job.

'The big discussion involves mak ing sure that th is dovetails with the existing training provision in the area. There are colleges in the area that already do construction training; the Tresham Institute in the north of the county and Moulton College in the south have good reputations for construction skills. The Government sees that the main construction training should come through the further education colleges. We have to work out how that fits in with other proposals and it may be they provide the training in these new facilities, ' says Mr Lane.

But he is also wary of suggest ing that there is a lack of house building ability in the area. He points out that, while Corby itself may not have seen much const ruct ion work in recent years, the same cannot be said for its neighbours.

He says: 'Northamptonshire has been growing and there has been a lot of house building going on for the last few years.

Corby is the exception, where there will be huge growth in house building from virtually nothing to 400 units a year.

'But if you look at East Northants or Kettering or Wellingborough there has been anything up to 500 units being built already so you are just keeping existing growth going. You do not have that much net additional housing over the county, the grow thisn't that great. It is just being directed to the most appropriate area.'

The irony is that, in many ways, Corby offers much to house builders. Much of the available land is plantation created after former steel sites were returned to green fields.

'It is lousy land because it was never fully recovered; it was very unproductive because it had a lot of stones close to the top.

But that is ideal land for the house builders, ' says Mr Lane.

But with all this new building work is there not a danger that the town is going to be a building site for the next few years, acting as an eyesore and disruption to current residents of the town?

Not so, according to Mr Lane. He says: 'The only residents that will be affected by the works want to be affected. The biggest estate that has been identified as being in need of improvement is the Kingswood estate. There is a huge programme under way there. Those people are living on a building site but they have been campaigning for years to be a building site because they think they have been neglected. It will be disruptive because there is selective demolition and rebuild on those sites. In the rest of the town the shopping centre disruption is minor because they are building on new space onto the existing centre.'

Dave and Marion Pickering have more invested than most in the regeneration of Corby. Together the pair front up Yellow Metal, a plant hire firm created to take advantage of the boom in work expected in the town over the coming years.

'We have been in the plant business for a long time, originally in South Africa, ' says Mrs Pickering. 'We came back over here and started to hear about all the regeneration was going to be going on in Corby. We targeted this area because there was going to be so much work'.

That was two years ago. So how has business gone for the pair?

'I think we may have got excited a bit prematurely. We imagined that the regeneration would take off in months. Two years down the line and we are still waiting, ' says Mrs Pickering.

But with work now starting on the town centre Yellow Metal may now begin to take advantage of Corby's rejuvenation, provided the firm can find its way past some of its national competitors.

'One of the problems is the big developers come in with prearranged national contracts with the big plant hire companies excluding us little chaps. But we think we give a much more personalised service and offer the same rates and newer equipment, ' says Mrs Pickering.

Mr and Mrs Pickering hope that this customer friendly focus will soon prove successful, allowing Yellow Metal to play its own small part Corby's rebirth.

Corby has finally been give the chance to become the well functioning town it was always planned to be. The Corby of the present is an example of the failure of town planning. Hopefully the Corby of the future will be an example of its successes.