In last weekend’s Western Mail, I wrote about the enormous potential of Orb Steelworks in Newport which is facing closure.
Here’s my article:
Last month Tata announced that it would be closing Cogent Orb Steelworks in Newport, with the loss of 380 jobs.
This was devastating news for a highly skilled workforce and their families, and for the city of Newport, where Orb has been part of the landscape since 1898.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the steel industry to the economic, social and cultural life of south Wales, and there are few workplaces more ingrained into the identity of Newport than Orb.
Our iconic Transporter Bridge was originally built to carry Orb workers over the river Usk.
Street names in Newport like Dudley, Walsall, Wednesbury, Bilston, Handsworth, Telford and Lilleshall – and even the Wolverhampton Wanderers-based colours chosen for Newport County AFC – commemorate the West Midlands migration to Gwent initiated by the Lysaghts company moving its sheet steel production to Newport at the end of the 19th century.
Orb went on to play an important role in Newport’s economic contribution to both war efforts – in World War One the site rolled brass and zinc for the Ministry of Munitions, and in the Second World War it was also a hub of activity, producing corrugated sheet for air-raid shelters, cartridge brass for cannon shells and duralumin for aircraft production.
From the late 1960s onwards, Orb’s activities moved towards cold rolling and annealing electric steels – a field that became the site’s speciality.
This is a site with a proud history, and could with investment have a bright future – especially in an economy where electrification is the name of the game.
Losing Orb would mean losing the electrical steels skills base that has been built up since the era of Harold Wilson’s “White Heat of technology”.
It would also represent a huge opportunity lost for the country.
The Community trade union has highlighted that Orb is the only plant in the UK with the potential to produce the specialised steel needed for electric vehicle motors.
The number of electric cars on our roads is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade, and evidence presented to the Committee on Climate Change has demonstrated the need for the UK to speed up the electric car revolution if we are to reach the carbon “net zero” target by 2050.
Labour aims to put 21.5 million electric vehicles on Britain’s roads by 2030 – double the number expected under the Government’s current target – helping to fuel a new era of clean manufacturing and a Green Industrial Revolution.
The UK is very well placed to become a global leader in electric car manufacturing, with the potential to build a new end-to-end supply chain for electric cars.
While there has been some attention given to electric car battery production – and the “gigafactories” needed to produce high volumes of battery products – electric motors are an equally vital part of the supply chain, and are built from high-quality “non-oriented” electrical steels – the demand for which could reach 90,000 tonnes a year by 2030.
In this context, you can see why Community has called Orb a “strategically important business underpinning this vital industry of the future”.
As well as the benefits to car-makers of sourcing in the UK, and supporting highly skilled jobs in our community, developing a supply chain for electric motors will be hugely important for the national balance of trade.
Across the UK there are currently 10,000 workers making internal-combustion engines, and Community has emphasised that a failure to develop the supply chain will result in a loss in the export value of those engines replaced by the import costs of electric motors, which equates to £1.2bn for every 1m electric cars.
Following the announcement from Tata, I raised this issue directly in Parliament with the Welsh Secretary and Prime Minister.
During the Prime Minister’s response in the Commons, he stated that his government is committed to ensuring UK steel is used in the supply chain for electric vehicles and that he would be in discussions with Tata about their investments in the UK.
I am determined to hold him to this.If the government is serious about having UK supply chain for electric vehicles, it should act to make sure we don’t lose Orb – it would be a travesty to let these skills and expertise go.
I have sent a public letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to back up his words in the chamber with concrete action to support Orb’s workers and secure the future of a site which can be a national asset for the future.
I am very pleased that the letter has been co-signed by my Newport colleagues John Griffiths AM, Ruth Jones MP and Jayne Bryant AM, 27 other MPs from across Wales, and the chairman and secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Steel Group.
My priority over the coming weeks and months will be doing all I can, working closely with trade union colleagues, to support Orb.
I hope the government will step up to the mark too.
Ultimately this isn’t just about Orb, but a precious national industry which has been crying out for a vote of confidence from ministers in Whitehall.
Action to address the worrying situation at Orb will be a real test of the Prime Minister’s commitment to an industrial strategy, which should be a robust one with steel at its heart.
Community’s steel consultants, Syndex have researched and concluded that with a new strategy and some public support, there could be a sustainable future for the business. The strategy advocated by Syndex includes three key aspects: a new annealing line at Orb, investment in automation to make Orb’s grain-oriented products more competitive, and relocation of the hot rolled coil supply chain from IJmuiden to Port Talbot.
On October 12 I’ll be joining Orb workers, trade unionists including Community and Unite, and other Welsh MPs and AMs in a march through Newport to show our support for the plant.
The march begins at 12.15pm at Gilligan’s Island in Newport, and ends in the city centre.
It would be great to see as many people there as possible to send out a message on the importance of securing a future for Orb and the Welsh steel industry.
Orb is a site which could be underpinning a dynamic UK automotive industry, and be at the cutting edge of new steel technologies.
Newport, Wales and the UK will be worse off if government fails to grasp its enormous potential before it’s too late.