They belch smoke and steam, but Port Talbot loves its furnaces

OUT of the mist and the rain a labyrinth of pipes appears. Massive cooling towers can be seen fleetingly through the swirling cloud. Chimneys belch great clouds of steam which mingle with the sea-fret and envelope the furnaces and distillation towers with their surreal spiral staircases.

Welcome to Port Talbot.

Leaving behind what the PR hand-outs have told you is one of the most efficient steel-producing plants in Europe, you head for the windswept promenade where white waves crash, heavy laden with muddy sand, into the black rocks. Menacingly through the great fog, in the distance, white and orange lights seem to blink where the flare stacks rise from the serpentine coils of the British Petroleum plant at Baglan Bay.

This is, however, an outsider's view. The folk in the pubs and clubs of the little Welsh town tell a different story.

It is not simply about jobs and security, though it is true there is outrage at reports that the Government is to block the development of an energy park which promised 3,000 jobs on the largest single new site in the UK with room for a building of a million square feet - big enough for a car assembly plant.

No, it is about pride and about something else which has died in industrial life in modern Britain. Sitting in the Llandarcy Social Club, Mel Harris, a production technician at the chemical works, tells part of the story. "In this community there's virtually no-one who hasn't cause to be thankful to BP," he begins.

There is nothing of the obsequiousness of the employee about this. His drinking companions are a social worker, a police inspector and a civil servant. They all endorse his view.

The policeman talks approvingly about BP's road safety team, which tours local schools with a car adapted for use by children. The social worker speaks of her work as child safety co-ordinator on a BP-sponsored programme to revitalise the local Sandfields housing estate. The civil servant praises BP's Helping Hand which, among other things, buys football kits for new local clubs and even has its own bouncy castle which it lends to local groups.

If it sounds like good old-fashioned paternalism, that sense is only reinforced when Terry Harvey, the club manager, whose grandfather, mother and father, and son have all worked for the firm, recalls the good old days when, on wet Bonfire Nights, the company would sent employees out with paraffin sheets to set the fires ablaze. "When I was a boy we used to say that everyone round here's got a BP stamp on their bum." All a thing of the past? Adrian Jenkins insists not. He is director of development at Neath Port Talbot Borough Council. "They have been very good industrial neighbours. They're not looked at as a multinational but as a local firm. And it has continued when they started to downsize."

BP shut its crude oil refinery at Llandarcy in 1987. That used oil from the Middle East and the company found the plant was unable to compete with oil from the North Sea. It sparked off a domino effect in the manufacture of secondary oil products which has continued ever since.

The workforce on BP's two sites was more than halved. Around 1,000 jobs were lost by 1991. Another 300 went. Then in 1994 its Baglan Bay site lost a further 350, bringing the workforce down to the present 310.

"BP did not just walk away," says Adrian Jenkins. It spent pounds 40m creating a business park where 70 new companies eventually grew, employing nearly 800 people in everything from laser technology to insurance broking. Then it set up a scheme to offer cheap unsecured loans for small businesses locally. When the last tranche of jobs went it helped its redundant staff to set up their own businesses - not one of which has since failed - and helped all but 10 of the others to find a new job.

"It's part of our corporate philosophy - to be a good neighbour," says BP's new business manager, Ken Allison. "Building a good reputation brings business. When we want to start work in a new area we can convince the local people of our bona fides by showing them how we behave elsewhere." The Llandarcy site is due for complete closure next year and no new investment is planned at Baglan Bay, so it too may close within the next decade. BP's solution was to turn the adjacent land into an "energy park" where businesses would be attracted by electricity at a 30 per cent discount, provided by an updated gas-fired version of its site's power station. A commercial producer would build it with the inducement that surplus power could be sold to the national grid.

The Government seems unimpressed. "If we gave it the go-ahead there would be 15 others in the queue with similar proposals. We'd be sentencing coal to death," said one Whitehall insider. "More than that, if we continued the Tory dash-for-gas policy, in five years we'd be 90 per cent dependent upon gas. And when North Sea oil runs out we'd be at the mercy of people like Turkey and Tajikistan."

All of which puts the Welsh industry minister, Peter Hain, in a difficult position. Many of his constituents work at Baglan. But others have jobs in the rump of the mining industry. "I want to see the energy park go ahead," he says. "We have given them two options. Either they go for a smaller power station which mainly supplies the energy park and doesn't put so much into the national grid. Or they go for a clean coal power station."

They are unimpressed in Port Talbot. Ken Sawyers, chief executive of the local authority, insists a coal-fired station is unacceptable. "The environmental impact would be too great." As to a smaller gas-fired plant, BP insists that it wouldn't produce power cheap enough to induce firms to move. "If the Government won't back our proposal," says Ken Allison, "then they need to think about some other inducement - enterprise zone status or full development area status."

One thing is sure, says Vernon Griffiths, 75, who worked for BP for 39 years, as he rises to leave the club: "We're the relics of the good days. You don't get jobs for life nowadays in any industry. You won't see another firm like them round here again."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015