Stocksbridge demands 'deeds not words' to give steel a future
Steelworkers in Stocksbridge have learned to live with constant anxiety about their jobs - but this crisis is different.
The historic steel town has suffered thousands of cuts since the 1970s and the collapse of an important lender to current owner Liberty Steel has raised those fears again.
But there are several factors that supporters hope could keep the furnace fires burning.
Perhaps most important is Miriam Cates, the town’s new Conservative MP.
It is hoped she can persuade government to back the sector as it recovers from the pandemic and starts to supply components for a new green economy, including off-shore wind farms and renewable energy projects.
Some 762 people work in the High Value Manufacturing Division of Speciality Steels in Stocksbridge, although some are furloughed. It supplies the aerospace, oil and gas and general engineering markets. Speciality Steels also employs 865 across three businesses in Rotherham. The group has seen demand for some products fall by 60 per cent following the downturn in aerospace due to Covid-19.
MP Miriam Cates said she spoke to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Wednesday and was ‘very reassured’ by his commitment to UK steel and the importance of Speciality Steels.
She added: “My job is to do whatever I can to save jobs. Liberty Steel is an important part of the heritage and the future of Stocksbridge.
“I have been very encouraged by the government’s commitment. This issue has shown everyone just how important it is to have a secure domestic supply.”
Nick Bradley, chair of Penistone and Stocksbridge Constituency Labour Party, said it was time for ‘deeds not words’ from government.
He added: “Britain desperately needs plants like this to provide products for the green economy. And we need a secure supply, we can’t be at the mercy of China or the US.
"If the government is serious about levelling up - and I don’t think they are - places like this are crucial to that.”
Stocksbridge has 6.5 per cent unemployment which was set to rise in coming months, he added.
“Losing a big plant like this would have a big impact. Tata sold its entire UK steel business to Liberty in 2017 £100m. Compared to £3bn for Test and Trace it is peanuts.”
Steel bosses have urged government to cut energy costs, which are up to 60 per cent higher than in Europe, buy more British steel, sort Brexit delays and pay incentives for the decarbonisation of plants that use huge amounts of electricity.
It is estimated that one steel job supports two in the supply chain and more in the local economy.
In Stocksbridge, Lisa Crossland, works at Fleur de Lys flowers, which gives steelworkers a discount.
She said it would always be a steel town and the closure of the plant would cause ‘great devastation’.
She added: “There’s no way the town can move on from steel. Generations of people have worked there and it makes products you can’t get anywhere else.”
In 2017, Stocksbridge celebrated 175 years of steel after Samuel Fox established a wiremaking works in 1842.
Tracey Martin, of Samuel’s Kitchen said steelworkers comprised 60 per cent of trade in normal times. But those that did come in were ‘in the dark’ about the future.
She added: “Steel will always be the heart of Stocksbridge. It’s a big concern, there are a lot of other businesses that Covid has trashed this year. I hope this isn’t another one.”
'Dawn' said her crane driver husband had worked there for 25 years and he was constantly worried about his job.
She added: “My son got set on and he was laid off two years later. We live in Penistone, if my husband loses his job, what are we supposed to do?
“Government needs to help. They let workers down last time. Just help it until it gets better. I know they are spending a lot of money on tackling the virus.”
She was referring to when Tata shed 685 staff in 2016.
Andrew Jackson of Stocksbridge said the town needed to diversify because steel was going the way of the coal industry.
He added: “Stocksbridge needs to find something to diversify into or it could end up a footnote in history. Fox Valley shopping centre is not the answer, there’s not the volume of people shopping there. It’s a declining village.”
There were 60,000 steelworkers in Sheffield in the 1970s, falling to 10,000 by the 1990s.
Liberty boss Sanjeev Gupta briefed union representatives on Tuesday on what the group was doing to protect the business following the collapse of lender Greensill.
He said it created a ‘challenging situation’ and a ‘huge effort to make this work’.
He added: ‘While the group as a whole is performing well operationally, there are some exceptions and I’m sorry to say that includes some of our UK steel businesses.
‘Since we took ownership in 2017, we have invested to restart the N Furnace in Rotherham and have expanded its product range.
‘While we grew production and broke even in 2018, the business has had its challenges since then which has required significant Group support.
‘Structurally, energy costs in the UK are between 50-60 per cent higher compared with our other sites in Europe.
‘The business also faced a weak market in 2019, followed by Brexit uncertainties and now the severe downturn in the aerospace sector due to Covid-19.
‘This has led to a fall in demand of up to 60 per cent for some products, putting pressure on our specialty steel business, which has required significant Group support.
‘As part of the prudent steps we are taking to manage cash, we are addressing the parts of the UK steel business which are currently loss making.’
He added: ‘It will require a huge effort to make this work, but I’m encouraged by the support we’ve received so far.’