When I arrived in the UK in 1989, there were 11 major steel making or steel processing plants in Wales, all in the recent past part of the recently privatised British Steel Corporation. Some were under threat, some of them had slimmed down, and some still appeared in robust health. Now there’s only five left, all of them under threat: Port Talbot (the only one with blast furnaces and steel making facilities), Llanwern (mostly still in existence because of its Zodiac galvanising line), Orb (high silicon steel, on which China has recently slapped import duties, just as a warning shot), Trostre (totally dependent on Port Talbot for its supply of hot rolled coil) and Shotton (currently being the only that does relatively well, but also dependent for its coil supply on Port Talbot and Llanwern).
Here’s the list of casualties since my time in the UK (btw, it’s amazing how hard it is to find an overview of closures in the UK steel industry; a Google search either picks up on the latest events, or some historic events from the British Steel (Corporation) days, but rarely what exactly happened when. This is my attempt to compile what I could find out about Welsh sites.
1989 – Velindre
Unlike many other sites, a fairly recent addition from the 1950s, but why you would want to have three tinplate works in close proximity doesn’t appear to make sense – maybe it did in the 1950s. For a long time all that was left was a cooling tower with the British Steel logo on it which you could clearly see when you passed that part of the M4 motorway. It was pulled down when of the directors saw it as an unwelcome reminder of the site’s closure.
1990 – Brymbo
Don’t know too much about this site, apart from the fact that some people I got to know in Ebbw Vale, Llanwern and Port Talbot had been working there before the site closed.
2001 – Ebbw Vale
The one where I experienced the closure first-hand. Closure had always hung in the air, ever since steel making and hot rolling had gone elsewhere in the 1970s, but even then, when it came it came as a shock to many who had hoped that closure was a prospect for the distant future. At the time I was sharing an office with someone who had already been displaced by the closure of steel making in Panteg, so presumably for many it may not have been the first taste of looming redundancy.
2004 – Panteg
At the time of closure, Panteg had already changed hands, first to Avesta (an offshoot of British Steel Stainless) and later Outokumpu. As with Ebbw Vale, closure of the steel making facilities in 1996 only was a foretaste of the final event.
?2009 – Pontardulais
This was the site of Corus Colors where aluminised products were being produced. Despite its niche part of the steel market (or maybe because of it), it must have suffered from the 2008 crash, and was a prime candidate for when Tata Steel tried to get rid of small satellites.
2012 – Tafarnaubach
Another site that was kept open for political expediency and keeping employment in what otherwise would be an unemployment hotspot. Also part of Corus Colors and its successor under Tata Steel and specialising in white goods (which presumably made sense as long as the Hoover factory in nearby Merthyr Tydfil was still operating). Another victim of the drive to get rid of small satellite sites under the pressure of economic necessity, but presumably something that should have happened in the 1970s rather than 40 years later.
All this goes to show is that the original British Steel Corporation plan of concentrating steel production in a small number of super sites got stuck in the quicksand of political expediency which placed current employment over economic necessity, and that way placed a heavy burden of historical balast around the neck of Welsh steel making.