The rollercoaster story of Port Talbot steelworks on which the fate of an entire community depends

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In 1960 around 20,000 people worked at the Port Talbot steelworks. Currently it directly employs less then 4,000.

Over the last 50 years, Port Talbot’s steel industry has seen what feels like endless highs and lows, with periods of stability tarnished by strikes and redundancies.

The industry’s most recent blow came this month, when Tata announced it was no longer prepared to subsidise its loss-making UK business and said it intended to make its Port Talbot steelworks “self-sustaining”.

Economy Minister Ken Skates said the announcement would be “extremely worrying for Tata Steel workers” and that the First Minister was seeking urgent talks with the Prime Minister, to provide financial support to safeguard steelmaking in Wales and the UK.

Tata has been in discussions for months with the UK Government over a financial lifeline of £500m, which could see the taxpayer taking a minority equity stake.

But it’s just the latest uncertainty for an industry whose roots run deep in Port Talbot.

Retired local councillor and blastfurnaceman of 44 years, Tony Taylor, said the town’s steel industry supported the entire local economy and social fabric of Port Talbot.

“In Port Talbot we’ve had a steel industry for over a hundred years. It currently employs 4,000 people. If you double that with contractors, that’s 8,000 people. If you double that with people who supply the works, that’s, say another 4,000 people. That makes 12,000 people,” he said

“When you realise the businesses that rely on the steel industry: local cafes, takeaways, shops, it’s about 16,000 people. Thousands of people are reliant on that steelworks. That’s a lot of people earning money, spending money, paying taxes and national insurance.

“There are well paid jobs and highly skilled jobs in there. The steel industry isn’t just some guy with a shovel, there are people on computers doing analysis work.”



Port Talbot councillor Tony Taylor, who also worked at the steelworks and is now retired

He added: “If it shut tomorrow, Port Talbot is going to struggle for a millennium, it would lead to mass unemployment. People travel to the steelworks from surrounding areas like Swansea, Neath, but also workers travel further afield from places like Chepstow. Not only would it impact local businesses, but also the suppliers. Where do you think they get their nuts and bolts from? The computers?”

In 1947 planning began for the “Abbey Works” (nicknamed after the nearby monastery) a little further east at Margam and the mill on the site of the present steel plant opened in 1951.

By the 1960s it was flourishing and with a workforce of more than 20,000 it was termed “Treasure Island”.



A staff outing involving workers at the steelworks in Port Talbot in 1951


Workers at the Port Talbot steelworks


A steelworker at the controls of a furnace

In 1967 the old Steel Company of Wales which ran the plant was nationalised to form part of British Steel and it later became part of the private Corus Group.

Corus had been formed from a 1999 merger of British Steel and Koninklijke Hoogovens of the Netherlands.

Tata, the Indian conglomerate that also owns Tetley Tea and Jaguar Land Rover, snapped up Corus in a debt-fuelled deal for £6.7bn in 2007.

But ever since then, Tata Steel Europe, which Corus became, has been hit by falling demand and cut-throat Chinese competition with steel prices falling and rising

In January, 2016, the steel industry in Wales was dealt a huge blow when Tata announced 1,050 job cuts at Port Talbot and Trostre.

Some 750 of those jobs lost were in Port Talbot.

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Then, in 2019, came more bad news as HI-LEX Cable System in Port Talbot announced it would close in 2021, with the loss of 125 jobs, while Tata Steel’s UK losses increased from £222m to £371m.

Tata Steel CEO and managing director T V Narendran said that while the company already had financial support from the UK government to assist with the day-to-day running costs, it needed something more substantial to secure jobs in the future.

He added: “That is not enough to make the business going in the long term.”

However, he added: “Last six months, Tata Steel Europe has been cash positive and neutral and hasn’t got support from India. The UK operations are within sight of meeting the target of being self-sustainable.

“The mandate,” he added, “is to run without India’s support.”

But despite the uncertainty, ex-blastfurnaceman Tony said people in Port Talbot havd no choice but to remain hopeful that the company would once again swing back and continue to operate.



A coilbox coiling rolled steel on the Hot Strip Mill at Tata Port Talbot steelworks Wales



The red hot steel being rolled



It’s a hot and dangerous process

He said: “You’ve got to feel confident for the future, you can’t believe that people would let it go. We’ve been so many times on the brink that you start to think ‘well is it this time it’s going to happen?’, but no it’s not going to happen. People have got to see sense. The government needs to come on board now with financial support.

“The steel industry is similar to surfing, you’re either on your belly waiting for a wave or you’re up and riding it – it’s cyclical and depends on the demand for steel.

“What you don’t want is industry people running around the world trying to get the cheapest steel they can. We make 5.5 million tonnes a year in Britain while China makes about 365 million tonnes. They’ve got the cheap manufacturing process set up, cheap labour set up. You can buy Chinese steel for cheap, but you’ve got to look after your own country.”



Tata Steel's Port Talbot works
Tata Steel’s Port Talbot works


You know you’re almost back home when you glimpse the steelworks from the M4

According to local historian, Bleddyn Penny, Port Talbot’s reliance on the steel industry boils down to economics, but its importance runs far deeper than money.

“The look, the feel, the fabric of the town has been shaped by the steel industry,” he said.

“If you look at Sandfields housing estate, that was built during the 1940s and 50s purely to house the many steelworkers, because at that time, there were so many people moving into Port Talbot.

“The purpose of the town for at least the last 70 years has been to make steel. There’s a psychological impact there as well. You have the statue of a steelworker in the town centre – it’s a sense of identity, a badge of pride almost.

“When you meet people, they’re generally quite proud to say they worked there and you can’t say that about all jobs.”

He added: “The history of Port Talbot’s steelworks can seem quite bleak, but the thing that it has always had on its side is that it is the great survivor, even though steelworks across wales have gone, this still is the largest steelworks in Britain despite everything that’s happened, but like most heavy industries, it’s very sensitive to what’s gone on in the wider economy.

“In 2008 after the financial crash, the steel that would have gone to construction wasn’t as in demand, so work suffered. Now with coronavirus, it’s having similar effects.”

Many businesses in the town centre rely on the steelworks to stay afloat in one way or another.

Some rely on the workers who directly use their services, while others rely on a prosperous local economy.



Aberafan Shopping Centre

Belinda Morgan is manager of Cafe Latte restaurant in Aberafan Shopping Centre.

“We are a secondary business to the steelworks,” she explained. First-hand it’s not too bad as we don’t rely on Tata Steel workers coming in.

“But if people don’t have the money to spend in the shopping centre and those shops go, people in the town won’t be coming to us. It would generally be bad for the town and the smaller businesses especially.

“A lot of shop workers in the town work part time and there isn’t a whole lot of financial support for them. It’s very worrying on top of everything else going on at the moment.

“It’s also the uncertainty of it. Every year there’s a new reason why they are struggling or might have to cut jobs and it makes it hard to plan anything.”

Port Talbot local Lloyd Warren manages Filco Supermarket, which overlooks the steelworks. He worries what would happen to the local area in the long term without the industry.

“Where we are situated, you can’t miss the steelworks,” he said. If that was to close or had major redundancies it would impact the local economy.

“In Port Talbot there are a number of supermarkets and something would have to give way. It could affect sales and in the long term could impact the number of people we could employ. We may not get steelworkers coming into the supermarket anymore on their break because of the relief road in 2012, but we are a secondary business.

“[food shops] come to us to get supplies for the steelworkers. Without them, we are going to lose business.”

It didn’t just have an impact from a store point of view, but a personal one for people living in the town, he added. If it went, it would smash housing prices, and where would we be in 20 years time?

“Something would have to fill the unemployment void or it would become like another valleys town.”

Any funding from the UK government to support the industry would be conditional on the steelmaker reducing carbon emissions and supporting the UK government’s target of achieving a zero emissions target by 2050.

There has been speculation that this could see Port Talbot changing from a primary steel operation, to a recycled steel one that would use electric arc furnaces.

However, an investment in electric arc furnaces that would recycle steel rather than make it from scratch with less need for raw materials such as iron ore and coking coal, would ikely require far less staff.

Roy Rickhuss CBE, general secretary of trade union Community, said: “We have every faith that the steelworks in Port Talbot can have a prosperous future. Under the right conditions, with investment and a level playing field with their counterparts in the rest of Europe, we know our steelworkers will succeed. But both government and Tata must give our world class steelworkers a fighting chance.

“It is time for a deal that will support the transition to low carbon steelmaking securing thousands of jobs and livelihoods as well as a long term future for steelmaking at Port Talbot.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with Tata Steel and other stakeholders as the company shapes its business strategy for the future.

“The UK Government remains committed to supporting a sustainable, long-term future for steel making in the UK.”



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