Adam Price: We must nationalise Welsh steel

Port Talbot needs a steel co-operative.

Sixty years ago, over 20,000 people would have been employed at the Port Talbot steelworks in south Wales. Today, that number is 4,000. 

Over the years, Port Talbot’s steel industry has been through too many highs and lows – from redundancies and strikes to the spectre of uncertainty on the steelworks’ future as a viable plant.

That same spectre returned earlier this month when Tata confirmed it was currently seeking £500 million of funding from the Westminster government as part of the Project Birch initiative in order to sustain its future.

Steel is a vital and historic part of Wales’ industrial base – and most importantly it is a huge employer in its surrounding area.  The Port Talbot steelworks is one of the two major steel plants in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. Over 8,000 people are employed – directly or indirectly – by the steel industry there.

Accepting this support by the Westminster Government will require Tata to close both its two blast furnaces at Port Talbot and replace them with electric arc furnaces that will produce steel from scrap rather than iron ore.

While this will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in Wales, it will also lead to very significant redundancies among the steelworks’ employees.

If this happens, history tells us that the probability of the re-establishment when clean technology becomes available is small, and Wales will have lost a vital part of its industrial base.

A policy of reducing UK greenhouse gases, while increasing them in other countries via imports, at the expense of Welsh workers jobs, would represent a short-term fix rather than a genuinely sustainable industrial strategy, and is the very opposite of a just transition to a decarbonised future.

Returning the Welsh steel industry to Welsh hands, to create a Welsh steel cooperative, is the only secure and sustainable future for Port Talbot and the other Welsh plants in the long run – with a seat at the table for workers and their communities.

After all, we have Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water), so why not have Dur Cymru (Welsh Steel)?

This, alongside developing an alternative strategy for Port Talbot, based around maintaining the works in their current configuration in the short to medium term, investing in the development of hydrogen based steel production in Wales, and ensuring that the Port Talbot works is converted to use the new technology to produce carbon-neutral steel by 2035 would ensure a win-win in terms of its economic and environmental impacts.

The Welsh Government has confirmed that it has already been working with The Basque co-operative Mondragon, which has previously indicated its willingness to provide advice and support in establishing an employee-owned business at Port Talbot. Why not take them up on that offer? A worker-owned integrated steel plant is by no means unprecedented internationally.

The Welsh Government paid out three quarters of a million pounds four years ago to facilitate the buy-out at Port Talbot to Excalibur – why not put the same resources and energy into a move that would put Tata into Welsh ownership and would see the local community reap the rewards?

During the Senedd plenary last week, the Labour Minister for the Economy Ken Skates said he agreed with Conservative MS Mark Isherwood that the discussion over ownership models was “actually a distraction” from what needed to be done – echoing words from his boss First Minister Mark Drakeford earlier that day.

Ownership is not a distraction as Welsh Labour suggests. Ownership will decide the future of the Welsh steel industry.

We cannot rely on Westminster to solve Wales’s economic problems, history has taught us that. When Wales does things differently, it does things better.

Tata’s announcement caused great anxiety for the communities of Port Talbot – and their 8,000 workers, who have kept the fires of our economic furnace burning for many decades.

Now is the time to show the difference that having our own government can make by bringing forward a counter proposal to protect jobs and livelihoods in Port Talbot and the surrounding area.

Adam Price is the leader of Plaid Cymru and a member of the Welsh Parliament for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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