Steel crisis: why are there no industry experts on Osborne’s commission?

The Commission must understand the necessity of using UK-made steel in our key infrastructure projects


At the end of October the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, revealed the eight names on the new Infrastructure Commission led by former Labour Transport secretary Lord Adonis.

The original idea for an Infrastructure Commission came from Labour’s former shadow chancellor Ed Balls. The Commission was designed to look to the long term and set infrastructure priorities based on ‘cross- party consensus’.

Having now established the Commission, George Osborne indicated that in his forthcoming spending review he would outline how the £100bn pounds worth of infrastructure projects will be delivered.

The current crisis in the steel industry has highlighted the need for steel to be at the heart of major infrastructure projects.

So it is disappointing that nobody with expertise from the Trade Union movement or a ‘heavyweight’ industrial figure has been appointed to the Commission.

Sir John Armitt, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, (where 100 per cent British Steel was used for infrastructure projects) and Lord Michael Heseltine sit alongside a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, a neuroscientist, a former chief economist at the GLA and the of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Interestingly James Wharton, the invisible minister for the Northern Powerhouse, has asked Lord Heseltine to head up the Tees Valley Inward Investment Initiative – to bring foreign investment to the hard-hit area.

 You may recall that Heseltine said recently it was a good time for UK steelworkers to lose their jobs. That should give union members from Redcar and those facing job losses at ICL’s potash mine in the area lots of confidence.

If the Infrastructure Commission is to do its job properly it must deal with the necessity of using UK-made steel in our key infrastructure projects.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, outlined just five key projects which he described as ‘shovel-ready that could bring some security to UK Steel along with enormous national benefits’:

  • The Lower Thames Crossing
  • Improvements to the A1 to aid traffic around the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’
  • The Intercity Express
  • The rail investment strategy (which has a £5.9bn budget)
  • Hinckley Point and other energy installations 

All of these projects should be required to use UK-manufactured steel – it would be a huge boost to the industry.  

There are many others, and they must be on the top of the agenda of the Infrastructure Commission.

Of course, the government has often explained why procurement of UK-manufactured goods cannot take place, citing ‘European rules‘. 

As Unite has pointed out, European rules did not stop Italy taking over the Ilva steel plant temporarily – and certainly Germany has ensured that its steel sector has not been battered in the same way that the UK’s has.

In fact, European rules were relaxed in 2014 to give EU governments the capacity to award procurement contracts based on ‘buying social’, a principle which Unite supports.

This allows governments to consider the social impact of contracts through the ‘most advantageous economic tenure’ in the award procedure which will enable governments to put more emphasis on quality, environmental considerations, social aspects and innovation, whilst taking into account the price and life cycle costs of goods being procured.

Is it too much to ask that the new Infrastructure Commission will take urgent steps to ensure that, as with the Olympic projects, 100 per cent UK-manufactured steel can be used for these major infrastructure projects?

Angela Eagle and her shadow team must ensure that, rather than selling off our infrastructure projects to China, the new Commission takes every action to ensure UK steel is procured for, and at the heart of, major projects.

It is not acceptable that the dumping of cheap Chinese steel, carries on – not just in the UK but across Europe – while British steel workers are thrown on the scrap heap in order for construction companies and investors to make even bigger profits.

It is time for the Infrastructure Commission to roll its sleeves up and get on with the job in hand.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite responsible for manufacturing

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.