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‘It’s industrial vandalism’: Inside the steel town facing its biggest ever challenge after Tata announcement

With the announced loss of thousands of jobs from Port Talbot’s steelworks plant, traders and residents are worried for the future of the town

Alex Ross
Saturday 20 January 2024 07:03 GMT
MP's anger at Tata Steel Port Talbot closure

Deep inside the last standing social club on the Sandfields estate in Port Talbot is a single-leveled bar with two pool tables and glass displays filled with sports trophies.

It’s 1pm and, in one corner of the Seaside Social and Labour Club, several middle-aged men sip from pints while heatedly discussing the one topic in town — the future of Tata’s steelworks plant.

The dreaded announcement about the site’s two steel-making blast furnaces by the company’s Indian owners thousands of miles away was anticipated, but the men are still shocked and angered by the news.

Anthony Andrews (left) and Gary English both worked at the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot - on Friday they were among drinkers discussing the partial closure in the Seaside and Social Club (The Independent)

“It’s industrial vandalism - nothing else,” says Anthony English, 57, who is on sick leave from spraying steel casts for so-called virgin steel at the UK’s largest steelworks plant.

“They [Tata] have been waiting to do this for years. They don’t care about our community or the environment. This is all about money.”

He added: “We’ve all given so much to that plant, and now we’re being tossed to the scrapheap.”

The housing estate was built between 1947 and 1954 to provide homes for workers at the plant, first run by the Steel Company of Wales before nationalisation in 1967.

The Sandfields estate in Port Talbot was built from 1947 for workers at the steelworks plant (The Independent)
The Seaside Social and Labour Club is the last remaining social club built in the 1960s in the area (The Independent)

The run-down estate is now one of the most deprived in the UK with high unemployment rates triggered on by a dwindling workforce at the steelworks over the decades.

Today, there are around 4,000 workers employed there and everyone in the area seems to knows someone – friend or family member – who works at the plant.

So news that 2,800 plant workers will lose their jobs – 2,500 over the next 18 months – is devastating for those who live here.

Tata say the plant is losing £1 million a day, and with government-backed plans for electric arc furnaces using scrap steel at the site, bosses have decided that now is the time to close its two blast furnaces.

Tata has announced it is closing the two blast furnaces at its Port Talbot plant with the loss of 2,800 jobs (PA)

Back at the social club – the last surviving of three which opened in area in the 1960s – Gary English says he worked at one of the blast furnaces for nine years.

“The environment issue is a smoke screen,” the 49-year-old claims. “They couldn’t wait to make this announcement and they’re not giving people the time to find new work. No mistake, 18 months is nothing.

“Port Talbot is already a ghost town and it’s just going to get even worse.”

Round the corner at The Red Dragon pub, Tata employee Alan Evans found out about the announcement while watching the news on the television.

Tata employee Alan Evans found out about the company’s announcement on the news (The Independent)

The 67-year-old crane driver plans to retire next year, but he’s worried for his younger colleagues, and the town.

He said: “The steelworks have always carried the town – what happens now? People will leave and the town will suffer, I just don’t see a future for it.”

Despite its economic struggles, the town – whose towering steelworks dominate the skyline – keeps its appeal.

It’s nestled between the rocky hills of south Wales and the charcoal blue of Swansea bay. In the town, there’s the charming Talbot Memorial Park with an arched stone entrance off the main road.

Entrance to the Talbot Memorial Park which features a bandstand and war memorial - it’s one of the attractive parts to the town (The Independent)
A community garden has been created on the road next to the entrance to Taibach, which sits in the shadow of the steelworks (The Independent)
A mural painted on a garage in a Port Talbot neighbourhood under the shadow of the town’s steelworks. It replaces a Banksy piece which has since been moved to England. (The Independent)

The working class community is friendly, and you can’t go far without passing an open social club, church-turned-community space or cafe.

There‘s also an emerging street art scene, triggered by a Banksy piece appearing in the Taibach neighbourhood, closest to the steelworks, during the Covid pandemic (unfortunately, the Banksy mural was pulled down and moved to England, much to locals’ annoyance).

But there are signs of deterioation. The roads are in a poor condition, shops fronts are boarded up and people openly complain about a lack of local jobs.

Tony Evans runs ABC Tyres in Taibach and says he has already seen a slump in business ahead of Friday’s announcement. “We used to get the boys [Tata employees] come over with punctures, worn-out tyres, but over the past few months we’ve lost alot of them,” he said.

“People are scared and don’t want to spend money.”

Helen Thomas, owner of Baguettes To Go, says 40 per cent of her custom is connected to the steelworks plant (The Independent)

Helen Thomas owns Baguettes To Go, also in Taibach, and estimates 40 per cent of trade is from Tata employees and contractors coming for lunch.

She compared the town’s fortunes to Merthyr Tydfil, where the town’s last opencast coal mine shut last year.

“We could become another valley ghost town,” she said.

At the family-owned Ron Evans Pies Ltd shop, selling homemade pasties made on site for £1.50, manager Chris Howells is already planning for the fall in shop customers.

He also says 40 per cent of his shop trade comes from the steelworks plant. “Someone comes in and buys a box of pies to take back every day,” he said.

Chris Howells, manager of Ron Evans (Pies) Ltd, has already started preparing for business without a huge workforce at the steelworks (The Independent)

Mr Howells is now looking to expand deliveries to make up for the drop in local sales.

He said: “They’ve been making cuts for a while, but this is the big one. You can’t underestimate the impact it’ll have here as the skilled workforce will move away for jobs.”

Darren Purcell fears there will be no jobs for those who leave the steelworks - but says the closure of the blast furnaces will reduce issues with dust (The Independent)

But, there is one benefit to the situation, as pointed out by resident Darren Purcell. The 56-year-old, although opposed to the job losses at the plant, says it reduce dust emitted from the site.

Pointing out a thin layer on his conservatory roof, he said: “It’s one small thing, and there is a hope that people working at the site can find new work - but, of course, that takes time and there’s no guarantee.

“This is a difficult day for Port Talbot.”

Tata said in a statement: “Tata Steel today announced it will commence statutory consultation as part of its plan to transform and restructure its UK business.

“This plan is intended to reverse more than a decade of losses and transition from the legacy blast furnaces to a more sustainable, green steel business.

“The transformation would secure most of Tata Steel UK’s existing product capability and maintain the country’s self-sufficiency in steelmaking, while also reducing Tata Steel UK’s CO2 emissions by 5 million tonnes per year and overall UK country emissions by about 1.5 per cent.”

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