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Neath Port Talbot Politics South Wales

Steel town facing biggest changes in seven decades

Port Talbot Waterside (Pic: Neath Port Talbot Council)

THERE’S no doubt how important the steelworks is to the industrial town of Port Talbot. Created in 1901, the south Wales site was once considered one of the largest of its kind in Europe, and has even been described in the past as the jewel of Britain’s industrial crown.

Even in it’s current state of being, the site, which is owned by Indian steel giant Tata, is still the largest steelmaking site in the UK, employing around 4,000 people, as well as supporting the economy with a supply chain of jobs, and wages that bleed through into local businesses.

Its importance simply can’t be understated to this area of south west Wales, with everyone who lives there knowing someone who has worked at the site at some time or other, and its two giant blast furnaces that dominate the skyline almost considered as much a part of the geography as the mountains or sea.

However, things could be about to change, after announcements from Tata Steel that the two giant blast furnaces may be gone in the coming years, with the site potentially being converted to run on electricity, resulting  in a potential feared loss of as many as 3,000 jobs.

The Indian-owned steel giant recently published details of its agreement with the UK Government, to invest £1.25bn into the Port Talbot steelworks, to install electric steel recycling furnaces and shut down its two primary steelmaking blast furnaces.

This has led to concerns from unions that more than 3,000 jobs could be axed, as electric arc steel making, which involves recycling steel as opposed to making ‘virgin steel’, does not require as many members of staff.

During the week, unions even claimed that Tata Steel was planning to announce the closure of the bulk of its operation at the UK’s biggest steelworks, however it is unclear if or when that statement will be made.

The announcement also led to a number of residents, union members and community groups turning up to support an action event in the town on October 2, with claims that the move could destroy the very fabric of the area.

Ian Williams is a senior trade union representative at Unite, who spoke at the event, and said if such a transition was to go ahead, it would need to be done in a way that promoted the making of green steel, with more jobs created instead of cuts.

He said: “If they just cut these 3,000 jobs without putting the correct transition plan in place it will cause complete devastation. In my opinion there will be no Port Talbot, and no south Wales corridor either.

“Nobody is arguing that we don’t need to de-carbonise and change for the future. The whole world is changing, but we need to do it in a responsible and socially just way, where we can grow our economy, grow steel manufacturing, and try to become a leader in green steel instead of just thinking of cuts.”

Ian Williams (Pic: Lewis Smith)

Former steel worker, Jason Bartlett, of Llanelli, added: “We are all prepared to move to a greener future but the effect this electric arc furnace will have at this moment in time on the workforce and local businesses would be completely unrecoverable.

“Once the jobs have gone they’ve gone because they don’t need the same amount of people to run an electric arc as they do a conventional blast furnace. The transition will need to happen but over a period of time which will lessen the redundancies and not make them as severe as they are.

“We’ve seen plant closures in the past in places like Ebbw Vale and they never quite regenerate or have the growth back there. It’s not just the 3,000 jobs that will go, but jobs across the whole supply chain which would be absolutely devastating for the area.”

Jason Bartlett (Pic: Lewis Smith)

Malcolm Gullam of Port Talbot said: “This is terrible news for the community, and without investment we could see thousands of redundancies along with the loss of our ability to create virgin steel, and other grades of steel that would allow them to complete their order book.

“Of course, we are all for green energy, but we will still need to produce steel in this country, and if we can’t we will have to import it from places like China and India where they also use blast furnaces, so it’s just moving the problem across.”

On the high-street in Port Talbot there are similar concerns from business owners who fear that the loss of jobs at the works could result in a reduction of footfall in the town, as well as people having less money to spend.

Malcolm Gullam (Pic: Lewis Smith)

Sarah Short owns Ferrari’s Cafe and said: “Obviously this type of news is very worrying for businesses on the high street because if the jobs go at the steelworks then that could be 3,000 people in the area that don’t have an income.

“As far as I’m aware, if it’s a case of shutting it down completely or doing the change over, to me it will be a benefit that not everyone loses their jobs though it would still be very unfortunate for those 3,000 who do.

“Obviously it’s going to have a knock-on effect in Port Talbot because even in the surrounding areas they come to the cafes for food and to use the shops, so there is an effect but I’m not 100% sure yet how much it will impact us.”

Megan Daniels is a local shop worker who travels from Neath and said: “It would definitely have an impact of the high street shops that trade here, as the steelworks is such a big part of the town. It would mean a lot of people without a job, and obviously them having less money to spend in the shops.

“It is a worry, and I think a lot of people here are nervous at the moment as it is, not only because of the threat of job losses, but because of the cost-of-living crisis where prices on everything seem to be going up.”

Megan Daniels (Pic: Lewis Smith)

Dale George owns a barber shop in Port Talbot and added: “The electric arc is something that has to come in and we do understand that, as things can’t continue due to the greenhouse emissions the plant puts out, but the worry of 3,000  jobs going, and the potential worry of further jobs that could knock-on from that is terrifying.

“Port Talbot isn’t a bustling hub as it is, and the knock-on effect it could have for the area is potentially cataclysmic, as there would be a lot less money in people’s pockets.”

Dale George (Pic: Lewis Smith)

Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, also spoke out about the plans this week, saying that Tata’s plans for Port Talbot could “destroy our steelmaking, destroy thousands of jobs, and destroy the very fabric of our community.”

In a statement earlier this week a Tata Steel spokesperson said: “Despite recent press speculation, we are not in a position to make a formal announcement about any proposals for a transition to a de-carbonised future for Tata Steel UK.

“We hope to soon start a formal information and consultation process with our employee representatives, in which we would share more details about any such proposals.

“We believe our £1.25 billion proposal to transition to green steelmaking will secure the business for the longer term, bolster UK steel security and help develop a green ecosystem in the region.

“We are committed to a meaningful information and consultation process with our trade union partners and will carefully consider any proposals put forward.”