Priceless skills of Stocksbridge steelworkers must be handled with utmost care

As the for sale signs go up in Stocksbridge, the only certainty is the deep anxiety felt by more than 750 workers.

By David Walsh
Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 5:34 pm

The rest is speculation.

It is understood there has been plenty of interest. But if and when Liberty chooses a buyer many hurdles remain.

Can a deal, which includes Brinsworth strip mill in Rotherham and Performance Steels in West Bromwich, be done quickly enough to satisfy creditor Credit Suisse?

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Liberty Speciality Steels, Stocksbridge. Picture: Chris Etchells

In total, Liberty Steel is selling three businesses employing 1,500 to reduce debts running into billions. They are the High Value Manufacturing arm of Speciality Steels, based in Stocksbridge Liberty Aluminium Technologies and Liberty Pressing Solutions.

Then, is the buyer suitable?

The National Security and Investment Act came into force three weeks ago. It beefs up government powers to block mergers and takeovers that put national security at risk.

Stocksbridge specialises in supplying the aerospace and energy sectors and ministers could decide a Chinese buyer, for example, was inappropriate - as happened with mobile phone maker Huawei.

Preparing an ingot to go into the VAR furnace (Vacuum Arc Remelting) at Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge

There’s also a question mark over the future of the steel sector. Labour says proposals to remove import tariffs could be the final straw that forces some steel mills to close for good. The Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate (TRID) recommends removing protections on nine types of steel. Trade Secretary Liz Truss will have the final decision.

Meanwhile, the aerospace sector is in a Covid-induced slump. But it could make a comeback, making Stocksbridge more attractive. At the beginning of last year aerospace was about half of income and business was ‘booming’.

This week, Stocksbridge Tory MP Miriam Cates called on government to support the town’s steel plant until a buyer can be found. But ministers stopped short of promising to prop it up.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng also turned down a plea for £170m bailout from Liberty in March. But he has spoken often and warmly about the business as a ‘national asset’ with a ‘viable future’ and says he remains commited to supporting the sector’s ‘low carbon transition to protect high-quality jobs’.

Liberty Speciality Steels Stocksbridge Re-melting section

And the government supported British Steel in Scunthorpe for months, at a cost of £600m, until Chinese firm Jingye took over in late 2019. The company is said to be interested in Stocksbridge - but relations between China and the UK have soured recently.

Finally, a Serious Fraud Office investigation and various legal challenges complicate the case for using taxpayers’ cash to help Liberty boss Sanjeev Gupta.

Liberty bought Speciality Steels from Tata for £100m in 2017. The deal included the 860-strong Rotherham Steel and Bar business at Aldwarke, which it wants to retain and invest in. It wants to use its refurbished electric arc furnaces to make 2m tonnes of steel a year from some of the scrap which is currently exported. The business supplies Stocksbridge with materials, including giant ingots via a railway line between the two sites.

But whether or not Stocksbridge is worth more or less today than it was four years ago, the skills in the workforce are priceless and should be treated as such.

And the families waiting anxiously for news must not be forgotten.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Please take out a digital subscription or buy a paper.

Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.