Tata Steel: A timeline to a day of reckoning for Port Talbot

  • Tom Atkins looks back over the history of the Port Talbot steelworks

More than 2,800 steelworkers have been told their jobs are at risk by Tata Steel with most of the losses expected in Port Talbot.

The company has confirmed plans to close blast furnaces at the UK's biggest steelworks in South Wales because of plans to decarbonise its operations.

Unions have described the cuts as "unacceptable", but Tata argues the changes are vital to move towards greener steel production.

The steelworks employs more than 8,000 people in the UK and is estimated to make the Welsh economy over £3 billion.

So how did we get here, and what will happen to the plant next?

What is the history of Port Talbot steelworks?

It isn't easy to overstate the connection between the steelworks and the Port Talbot community. There has been a steelworks in the town almost since it first appeared on maps. 

In 1951, the Abbey Works, now the Tata Works, was built. Within ten years, the town had become the biggest producer of steel in Europe, employing a workforce of 18,000.

Over the next 50 years, the steelworks was passed around between private companies and public ownership. In the 1980s, the steelworks employed 13,000 people but by the end of the decade, it employed just over 4,000.

Tata will spend hundreds of millions of pounds on decarbonising steel production in a bid to secure the future of its Port Talbot plant Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

In 2007, it was acquired by the Indian multinational, Tata Steel Limited, for more than $10 billion.

Since then, Port Talbot's works have been fraught with difficulties as cheaper Chinese steel has begun to dominate the market.

In 2012, Tata Steel announced it was cutting 900 jobs across the UK. Among the losses were around 500 in Port Talbot and Llanwern.

A year later, the Indian firm unveiled a refurbished £185 million blast furnace at Port Talbot, which was seen as a major vote of confidence for the plant.

Workers were dealt a big blow in 2016 when Tata announced around 750 job losses. More bad news came in 2019 when Tata Steel announced plans to cut another 1,000 jobs in the UK as part of wider restructuring proposals.

Tata Steel said the job losses were "designed to save its long-term future".

In April 2020, the multinational company went to the UK and Welsh Government to ask for investment to save jobs. It wanted a loan in the region of £500m after global orders slumped because of coronavirus.

Workers gathered outside Tata Steel’s Port Talbot steelworks in South Wales on 15 September, 2023. Credit: PA Images

Green steel and UK Government investment

In September 2023, the UK Government answered Tata's calls. It committed to investing £500m in the steelworks, intended to secure the survival of the plant.

The government subsidy was met by a further £700m investment from the Indian company and a plan to move to less carbon-intensive steelmaking.

The plan meant a new electric arc furnace would start to be used for greener steel production at Port Talbot.

Instead of using iron ore and coal, heat is created from an electric arc between two electrodes.

This will be the biggest change to the way the plant operates since the days of the Abbey Works, back in the 1950s. But it is a change which will see thousands of steelworkers no longer needed to run the plant's blast furnaces.

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