Port Talbot’s Future

blast furnace production, metallurgy

In the UK, recent news has been dominated by the likely sale and closure of the Port Talbot steelworks. This is the last of the heavy industries that provided by far the greatest part of employment in the UK coalfields. (The coal being the original source of energy for those industries.) The pervading view is that this is a national tragedy. There are however selective memories at work here. At the end of 1985, the National Union of Mineworkers lost its battle with Margaret Thatcher over pit closures, and over the next 10 to 15 years the coal industry in the UK effectively ended. The Yorkshire coalfield, and in particular the Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield area, already hard-hit by the loss of the textile industries in the post war years, was affected worse than most. Few shed tears for either the weavers or the miners, and the region was left to pick up the pieces on its own. So is the West Riding of Yorkshire now a howling wasteland?

I was there whilst this unfolded. With the exception of my father, every male in my family was a miner, and every woman a weaver. In the area I was raised, textiles and coal provided around half of total employment. In less than two working generations this work disappeared almost entirely. But to answer that question above, within 20 years of that momentous defeat of the NUM, most of the West Riding coalfield area was back to full employment, male and female employment had in total increased dramatically, and the jobs that replaced them were more productive and therefore better paid.

So we have an experiment, which ran in real time through my life, and mirrors almost entirely what is happening in South Wales. So what can Port Talbot learn from this historical experience? The first is that in the long run, this is an opportunity. Rather than battling to maintain the status quo, work to improve the future. Blast furnaces, used for smelting ore to produce iron, will soon anyway become obsolete. We have already made most of the steel the world will ever need, and we can recycle what we have much more cost effectively than making new steel. Just as wool blanket looms became obsolete (duvets), there isn’t going to be the need for many new blast furnaces, and due to the high energy costs in the UK they won’t be built there. Those whose only skills are operating a blast furnace will need to acquire new ones. For those who can’t, and fortunately they will be few, better provisions can and should be made. Certainly better than those provided to the people that truly did suffer when the Yorkshire mines were shut down.

The biggest learning is that we need to facilitate new businesses in the area for the long-term, and to assist people in moving to new areas to find work in the short term. The short-term answer in the Yorkshire coalfield was that our age group left. Including me. Initially to light manufacturing industry in the midlands, and then, when it became clear that high labour content manufacturing was going to move to Asia, I followed it there. Like the Irish and the Scots that have long dominated the mobile workforce of the UK, Yorkshiremen and women became nomads.   (Fun story: Ex-pats form tribes that hang out in the same bars, restaurants, sports clubs etc.   In Shanghai, our tribe of around 30 individuals had four Huddersfield Town fans!).

So how do you facilitate these long and short term solutions: Strangely enough, we seem to have forgotten how to do this as well. It is clear that Port Talbot needs a better enterprise zone.   A no corporation tax, low-cost energy, National Insurance contribution free zone that will attract investors to the area. It might not help those blast furnace operators, but it may keep down-stream steel operations in the area. And as in Yorkshire, a whole new bunch of industries that employ increasing numbers of more productive and better paid people. For those who have to move out of the area, make it easier for them. Give every person who wishes to leave a Port Talbot postcode a one off grant to relocate, and priority on any local housing authority waiting list in the postcode they want to move to. The UK has done this before, it works and it isn’t difficult or expensive, compared with the cost of keeping an obsolete technology turning out products nobody wants to buy.

Yorkshire was big enough with a strong enough economy to do this without help, but there were hard times for some, and many of us had no option but to leave. We don’t need to re-run the bits of the experiment that lead to these hardships for the people of South Wales.

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About:  Rob Ward has extensive global experience working in supply chain organisations.  He co-founded Cosmapec to help companies and executive teams establish, develop and optimise their supply chains.