Under a canopy of smog, the Port Talbot steelworks on the South Wales coast is ground zero for Britain’s contradictions. It is a smoking, choking aberration in our wipe-clean economy of professional services and retail – and the pride of an industrial Labour heartland that will soon host the Brexiteer utopia of a freeport (an enterprise zone unbound by regulation). Its dirty industry is undergoing an even dirtier journey to clean energy, and losing thousands of jobs along the way.
The acrid taste of burning coal tickled the back of my throat as I toured the 2,500-acre site, past stout gas towers and black mountain ranges of iron ore. A tangle of tracks trundled fuel to two blast furnaces, which stretched like steampunk steeples towards the ashen sky. “The pride and passion of Welsh steelmaking” was plastered across a metal warehouse.
But Tata Steel, the Indian multinational that owns Port Talbot, Britain’s biggest steel plant, has announced the closure of its blast furnaces. It has the UK government’s blessing, half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money to fund its green transition, and carte blanche to cut 2,800 jobs.
The old, polluting process will give way to an electric arc furnace, a cleaner and less labour-intensive method that will melt down scrap steel instead of making it from scratch. Another contradiction: Britain could soon be at war, according to the Defence Secretary, but could even sooner become the only major economy not to produce its own steel. When asked by MPs about the importance of manufacturing virgin steel, the Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, scoffed: “This is like me saying we’re going to keep typewriters going.”
But the future of steel is no joke to the people of Port Talbot. “It will be apocalyptic,” I was told by Mandie Pugh, who has served tea and frisbee-sized breakfast baps to steelworkers for 35 years from her food van (“They come to me with their problems; I’m like Dear Deidre!”). She has already noticed trade slow since the cuts were announced, as her regulars try to save cash.
“It’s a horrible place to be – with no idea how you’ll pay the mortgage or find work,” said Ian Williams, a 39-year-old fitter who joined the steel plant 22 years ago. A burly Valleys boy, Williams was raised in the pit village of Fochriw, outside Merthyr Tydfil, and left school at 16 to be an apprentice at the Ebbw Vale steel mill. At 18 he left his job when it closed, and now it’s happening again. “Life has stopped – we can’t go out, book holidays, buy a new car,” said Williams, who as a Unite union rep hears from colleagues who are also stuck in limbo. “And it’s not just us – I stop by a corner shop for a paper on the drive in, for example; they’ll lose my business.”
The Port Talbot and wider South Welsh economy will suffer, residents in the town centre warned. “Everybody here is related or connected to somebody who works at the plant,” said Janina Hughes, a 56-year-old support worker with two children employed at the steelworks. She moved to Port Talbot in the Eighties during the miners’ strike, and fears history “repeating itself”. Predicting greater pressure on health, housing and social services, she added: “This area is already deprived; I’m afraid it will become a ghost town.”
Tata and the government defend the deal as a step towards a greener future, reducing the UK’s carbon emissions by 1.5 per cent. But workers aren’t convinced. They suspect cost-cutting, not carbon-cutting, as the true motive. Britain’s steel industry is threatened by cheap Chinese imports and European competitors with lower energy costs. The plant’s acres could also prove lucrative once the freeport is established. “Some of this will probably end up as an Amazon warehouse,” Williams said, gesturing at the yellowing grass expanses around the blast furnaces, the waves frothing on to the beach beside them and the cormorants perched on rusty pipes drying their wings.
“The UK is trying to become greener – society expects it, the world expects it, and we accept it’s part of the future,” he added. “But in India and China they’re still building blast furnaces so it doesn’t make sense.” Indeed, Tata is opening one of the world’s biggest blast furnaces in the Indian industrial town of Kalinganagar this year. “They should keep the blast furnaces open while the electric arc is being built.”
As the government consigns British steel to a bleak future, there are questions for Labour, too. It promises to invest £3bn to keep producing steel by greener methods, rather than relying on scrap. But if communities such as Port Talbot are devastated by the march towards net zero, Labour’s “green prosperity plan” risks losing it voters. (London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone and Wales’s 20mph speed limits for urban areas, both imposed by Labour leaders, are already a political vulnerability.)
“The government’s deal sends a negative signal about decarbonisation leading to deindustrialisation, whereas it should be the opposite,” said Stephen Kinnock, the local Labour MP and a shadow minister. “So we have to continue to make the case that decarbonisation has to happen, both because the planet is burning and that’s the way the market is moving.” He urged Tata not to take any irreversible decisions ahead of the general election, and wait for Labour’s plan.
“I never want to give the impression that we’re sentimental or nostalgic about this – a steelworks is not a museum. It’s an innovative industry at the cutting edge, but we’ve been competing with one hand tied behind our backs.”
The lives of thousands in this modest coastal town are at a turning point, as is Britain. A Britain that dreams of becoming a green manufacturing superpower, but bows to the spreadsheets of international investors – whatever their climate commitments may be.
[See also: Can Europe defend itself in a hostile world?]
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State