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Community union's hope for new steel 'golden age'

Port Talbot steelworks

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A new “golden age of steelmaking” is still possible if there is a commitment to overcoming the challenges facing the industry, a union will argue.

Community is hosting a conference of workers, industry experts and politicians in Redcar, Teesside.

Senior executives from firms with a strong Welsh presence, including Tata, Liberty and Celsa, will be attending.

The union wants government and employers to invest in skills and technologies of the future.

The event will be held in the shadow of old SSI steelworks which closed in 2015.

More than 100 steelworkers will attend the conference, representing more than 20 different steel companies.

Business Minister Richard Harrington will speak, along with Community general secretary Roy Rickhuss.

The conference will also reflect on events in recent years, which led to Tata putting its UK operations up for sale in 2016, controversy over cheap Chinese imports and a £10bn investment deal being offered.

Last year brought the prospects of a Tata merger and a deal over pensions in exchange for the investment.

But there is concern that since market conditions have improved and talk of a crisis has ended, the UK government is less focused on the industry’s future.

UK crude steel production is viewed as stable by the industry, although global production increased by 5% in 2017.

Community will maintain that the long term future of the industry, which still employs about 14,000 workers in the UK, is still a long way from being secured.

One recent UK government study said there is £3.8bn a year to be tapped into by UK steel producers by 2030 – more than half in demand from construction – if the right investment and measures are in place and if Brexit is successful.

“Rather than being a sunset industry, steel can be the productive, hi-tech foundation of Britain’s post-Brexit manufacturing sector,” the union said ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

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Media captionSteve Dash (left) has worked at this plant in Newport for two different owners and for Corus in Ebbw Vale before then

One of the Welsh steelworkers at the summit in Redcar is Steve Dash, who has seen plenty of ups and downs after more than 30 years in the industry.

He was at Corus in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent until its closure, then worked at Alphasteel in Newport for four years before being made redundant again in 2009.

Now he is back under new owners Liberty Steel, working in quality control and as a workers’ representative.

“There are a lot of economic issues relating to the steel industry,” he said.

“This is about keeping steel on the political agenda and formulating a cohesive strategy”.

The European Steel Federation’s latest economic report this week said EU steel demand in 2018 and 2019 was “positive” but expansion would be at a moderate pace.

It also looked at the potential impact of Brexit on demand for steel – predicting that it could “heavily impact” construction activity in the UK, and be a “key risk” to the UK automotive market which is expected “to remain stuck in low gear”.

Meanwhile, back in south Wales, the Steel and Metals Institute (SaMI) will be officially opened at Swansea University, a forerunner for a new UK National Steel Innovation Centre.

Tata is providing 45 research and development staff to work alongside 20 university researchers on new products and processes to ensure the wider industry and supply chain is “fit for the 21st Century”.

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