'Another empty town': The fears from people in Port Talbot if plans to save TATA steelworks fail

Report by ITV Cymru Wales correspondent Richard Morgan

The UK government and steelmaking giants must 'act now' or risk ending up at the 'point of no return' in securing the future of Port Talbot steelworks, a steelworkers' union says.

It comes as the government is expected to announce this week £600m of grants to help British Steel and Tata Steel UK switch from coal-fired blast furnaces to a green alternative.

Tata Steel UK, which runs the UK's largest steel plant in Port Talbot, South Wales, is expected to receive around £300m of grants to try and ensure the plant's viability.

It's thought that the plan is to replace the current coal-fired blast furnaces with modern electric arc furnaces, which would allow steel production at a fraction of the current carbon emissions.

But unions and politicians are warning that the UK Government will have to do more to secure the future of industry and protect jobs, as recent estimates put the full cost of switching Port Talbot's plant to "green steel" as up to £3bn.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the UK government is "committed" to securing a sustainable and competitive future for the steel in the UK.

'Five to midnight'

Alan Coombs, a representative of Community Trade Union in Port Talbot, has warned that the UK government seems to be delaying investment while European competitors enjoy extensive support from their governments.

"The reality of it is that we've got to act now. If we're not acting now, we're getting very close to the point of no return. We need to ensure there's a future for Port Talbot and we continue to operate safely. I think it is becoming now five to midnight.'

The Unite union warned Grant Shapps this week that the steel industry was a "whisker away from collapse" Credit: PA

"The need for steel is going to rise over the next couple of years, so it's not an investment that is wasted, it's an investment that others are prepared to make to support their manufacturing industry and the infrastructures of their countries, and we need to get on board with that."

Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, called the funding reports "a step in the right direction" but said that "far, far more" support is needed.

"The challenges that the steel industry faces in terms of global competition means that it needs much stronger support from government, so that the steel companies can get us where we need to be – Cleaner steel, lots of good jobs, and tackling climate change, and narrowing the gap between London and the South East, and the rest of the country."

The reaction comes after representatives of UK steel industry workers warned last week that the steel industry was “at breaking point”.

Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, had written to the Business Secretary Grant Shapps on behalf of two other unions — Community and GMB – as well as his own.

He accused the UK government of a “lack of meaningful action,” particularly in the areas of UK procurement policy, green energy, energy pricing support and support for investment in new technologies.

Stephen Kinnock MP urged the UK government to increase their support of the steel industry

"Another empty town"

The news comes after an uncertain few years for steelmaking in Port Talbot.

The steelworks directly employs around 4,000 workers, with thousands more thought to be employed indirectly.

Locals told ITV Wales this week that the community would be "lost" and "another empty town" without the steelworks.

"A lot of people rely on it," one resident said.

"It's about the only decent steelworks left," said another.

"People are very depressed about it because we've been promised we'd have answers for the last four, five years, and nothing is coming forward, and people are getting more and more worried," said Alan Coombs of Community Trade Union.

Tata Steel has previously said it needed £1.5bn in aid from the UK Government or its plants could close Credit: PA Images

"When you pick up things in the press about other steel industries in the UK struggling, and other industries struggling, and the lack of anything positive coming from the government or coming from TATA, it's worrying for everybody."

"People will look at steelmaking and look at TATA and wonder if there's a future. One thing's for certain is there won't be a future without support from government and without support from TATA."

Green steel future?

While it is thought decarbonisation would still mean job losses at some steel plants, some unions say it is the "only way to go."

"There's a realisation and understanding that things have got to change." Alan Coombs of Community Trade Union says.

"From a Port Talbot point of view, we'd like the change to be within Port Talbot so that it's still the centre of steelmaking within the UK."

Tata Steel was approached for comment, but declined.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said:

“The Government recognises the vital role that steel plays within the UK economy, supporting local jobs and economic growth and is committed to securing a sustainable and competitive future for the UK steel sector.

“The Business Secretary considers the success of the steel sector a priority and continues to work closely with industry to achieve this."