Obituary: Peter Allen

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The Independent Online
Peter Dobson Allen, steel manager: born Dewsbury, West Yorkshire 4 January 1931; CBE 1988; married 1956 Janet Thurman (three sons); died London 25 September 1997.

In the 1970s and 1980s it fell to two outstanding Welshmen to manage the sharply declining fortunes of the two major nationalised industries on which industrial Wales largely relied for its living, and to preserve so far as possible a basis for recovery of their industries: one from South Wales through and through, the other acquired from Yorkshire but soon to become as committed a Welshman as any.

The convert was Peter Allen, an outstanding manager in the post-war steel industry, who died on Thursday from injuries sustained in the Southall train smash. He was born in 1931 in Dewsbury and was apprenticed in 1948. After taking a degree in Chemistry at Birmingham University and two years' National Service, he entered management and at 41 became works director at the huge Port Talbot plant in South Wales.

The turning-point in Allen's career came in 1976 when he was appointed managing director of the Welsh Division of the British Steel Corporation's strip mills division. At that time the iron-making capacity of the Ebbw Vale and East Moors (Cardiff) works - the "heavy end" - was planned for closure, and Allen was deeply involved in the moves to find alternative employment in those areas.

He had also inherited the promise of investment in the Port Talbot works to the tune of pounds 875m, when the scale of overcapacity in the world market was becoming clearer by the day. Meanwhile, the heavy end at Shotton was running out of time, and the plant's vocal and vivid proponents ensured that decisions were deferred, and resources diverted from Allen's aim of securing the future of the finishing end of the strip plants in Wales. The steering task called for high skills of persuasion and man management and Allen did not fail.

Then came the change of government in 1975, the closure of Shotton's heavy end and the activation of the slimlining plan under which employment in the two major plants in Wales was eventually to be reduced to below a quarter of what it had been in the 1960s. Neither Sir Charles Villiers, as the chairman of BSC who gave the lead, nor Peter Allen shirked the task, and it was Allen and his senior managers who had to ride out a strike and establish a manageable cost basis for the future.

Allen's personal kindness and fair and firm management eventually won the day. But for the industry to recover it was necessary to invest heavily in new technology; delay in doing so affected morale at the plants. Both decades were times of hands on political management of the steel industry; Whitehall and Westminster were not short of people who knew how to run BSC better than its board and its managers, while bemoaning the wisdom of earlier politically driven investment decisions.

By now, Allen was managing director of BSC's strip mills division, and thus in command of three major works where at best only two could survive. It was his cool, methodical and relentless presentation to his board of the case for modernising the plants, for example by introducing continuous casting, which enabled BSC to persuade the Government that the investment was essential if BSC were to compete internationally and eventually transfer to the private sector as a self-standing and profitable business. This was a great service to Wales and the workforce whose interests Allen sought at all times to protect.

Allen's special qualities came fully into play in 1984 when striking miners attempted to close BSC's operations by blockading supplies of raw materials. Closure would have been perilous for steelmaking in South Wales. His openness with the men and his meticulous command of detail were crucial.

The full story of those months, including the import of coal, the heavily policed convoys of lorryloads of iron ore along the M4 in Wales (rail transport being denied), the lone protest in a vertiginous crane, has yet to be told. There is little doubt that in those months Allen's courage and determination helped save Wales's steel industry.

Allen was latterly a member of the British Rail board and chairman of the West Wales Training and Enterprise Council. On retirement, he stayed in Wales. He was a private man, but always with fun and a sharp eye for a winning horse. When asked to take on yet another exposed position as chairman of the West Glamorgan District Health Authority, he readily agreed. Later he transferred to the chair of the Morriston Hospital NHS Trust at Swansea. There he was caught between irreconcilable clinical demands and financial realities. Following a vote of no confidence from certain consultants, he resigned in silence and dignity.

Many in Wales will now reflect on the virtues of professionalism when combined with courage and integrity, in the form of Peter Allen, and the way in which he applied them to Wales's great benefit.