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First stage government talks save Tata jobs ‘extremely positive’

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FOLLOWING high level talks this morning with the secretary of state for business and trade, Jonathon Reynolds, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Our meeting this morning with the business secretary Jonathan Reynolds was extremely positive. It is clear that the new secretary of state for business understands the need to secure the future of steelmaking in Britain.

“The commitment given to achieving a sustainable, profitable UK steel industry is very welcome and as was said this morning, decarbonisation must not mean deindustrialisation.

“In recent months, Unite has been fighting to save jobs at Tata and to revitalise the UK steel industry for the future of communities and for our national security. We are at a critical first stage but the extra investment now secured and the change of attitude from this new Labour government could be the game changers in making this happen.”

Last week Sharon Graham said: Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said that Labour’s immediate commencement of talks with Tata about its UK operations offered fresh hope for steelmaking in Wales.

She said: “But make no mistake, time is of the essence – under Tata’s current plans 2,800 steelworkers could lose their jobs in a few short weeks.”

“The extra investment that Unite secured is now available and Tata needs to think again. Now we will fight for a deal with real job guarantees which ensures Welsh steelmaking has a successful future.”

Meanwhile Following First Minister’s Questions on Tuesday (Jul 9), Andrew RT Davies MS, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said: “The lack of clarity on what can be offered for steel jobs is extending the anxiety felt across Wales.

“We’ve heard the promises that there will be a new deal and new money, but we haven’t seen any of the detail.

“Instead of grandstanding in an effort to extend his political career, the First Minister should give our steel communities hope by outlining what support will be available.”

Commenting on the latest developments at Tata Steel, including an end to planned strike action, Samuel Kurtz MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Economy and Energy said: “We welcome any discussions that bring both the steelworkers and Tata to the table to iron out how best jobs can be supported in the short term, as an early closure of the blast furnaces will bring additional distress to communities already dealing with enough as it is.

“The Welsh Labour government have only paid lip service to Tata’s workforce, failing to contribute a penny to the transition board, and UK Labour’s manifesto says nothing on what it would do differently to support Port Talbot’s steelworkers.”

Leader of the Welsh Lib Dems Jane Dodds said: “Tata’s unnecessarily heavy-handed approach towards this crisis has only added further fuel to the fire, and their threat to close the site ahead of schedule will do nothing to calm the nerves of those workers already at risk of losing their livelihoods.

“Our Welsh workers cannot be cast aside and treated as collateral damage, they are real people dealing with governmental negligence and abandonment. Tata’s proposed transition will result in an economic disaster for thousands of workers, their families, and the surrounding community of Port Talbot. Whilst also contributing towards a mental health crisis that could see a grave increase in risks of suicide.

“It’s not only people’s wallets at risk here but also their lives. We must have a comprehensive plan, built in cooperation with the workers, that not only provides retraining but also financial security and dignity. We cannot afford to hand Tata the keys and await the impending crash, we must act now for the sake of the community of Port Talbot.”

Greenpeace UK’s head of climate, Mel Evans, told The Pembrokeshire Herald this week: “Tata should be listening to its steelworkers, not slamming the door behind them as soon as they threaten to walk out. A better deal for green primary steelmaking is possible, and with less than one week to go until the UK elects a new and, potentially, more sympathetic government, closing the steelworks before those newly elected ministers have sat down at the negotiating table is a costly mistake.

“It will have devastating consequences for the thousands of steelworkers set to lose their jobs, for the local community, and for steel production in the UK. We need a just transition for workers in the UK, and Tata must wait for a new government to ensure that Port Talbot and its steelworkers have a safe and secure future, producing greener, cleaner steel.”

The latest comments came on Wednesday morning when Samuel Kurtz MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Economy and Energy said that Labour has no real plan to keep the blast furnaces open.

Kurtz told The Herald: “The Business Secretary is confirming what we already knew; that Tata are unmoveable in their desire to shut the blast furnaces and that Labour had no real plan to help keep them open.

“It must be an absolute priority for both the UK and Welsh governments to minimise the job losses, secure steelmaking and protect the supply chain and downstream industries. Because the UK Labour government are quickly finding out how much more difficult it is to govern, rather than oppose.

“The Welsh Conservative’s will support any deal that protects steelmaking, jobs and the wider community. We will wait and see if any such deal is forthcoming.”

Business

Steel industry faces turning point amid planned blast furnace closures

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THE CLOSURE of the UK’s last remaining blast furnaces has sparked significant debate and concern. As Britain plans to shut down the last blast furnace at Port Talbot and the two still in operation at British Steel in Scunthorpe, many are questioning the implications for the country that invented modern steelmaking.

The transition from traditional blast furnaces, which produce “virgin steel” by melting iron ore with coking coal, to electric arc furnaces (EAFs), which recycle scrap steel using electrical currents, is at the heart of this debate. Virgin steel production is notoriously carbon-intensive, while EAFs offer a more environmentally friendly alternative, aligning with Britain’s net-zero laws.

Critics argue that the UK will become overly dependent on steel imports, which could be problematic in times of international conflict. However, this argument fails to acknowledge that the UK’s virgin steel production is already heavily reliant on imported materials such as iron ore from Sweden, Brazil, and Australia, and coal from various parts of Europe. By shifting to EAFs, the UK would instead use domestic scrap steel, reducing reliance on foreign materials.

It was once true that EAFs could not produce advanced steel grades, but technological advancements have changed this. For instance, the finest grades of steel for aircraft landing gear and nuclear submarines are already produced in UK EAFs. While some argue that certain steel grades still require virgin steel, others in the industry believe EAFs can meet all steel production needs with the right materials.

Tata Steel UK’s plan to replace Port Talbot’s blast furnaces with EAFs could significantly reduce carbon emissions. While there are concerns about the economic and employment implications of this transition, it also presents an opportunity to recycle the 7-8 million tonnes of scrap steel the UK currently exports annually.

Despite these benefits, there is unease about the rapid closure of all UK blast furnaces. This drastic shift may lead to unintended consequences, especially given the high energy costs in the UK. If electric arc steel production proves more expensive, it could drive up the cost of steel, making imports from countries with less environmentally friendly practices more attractive.

Additionally, the UK’s steel strategy appears conservative compared to pioneering efforts in countries like Sweden, where hydrogen DRI plants are being developed, and the US, where electrolysis is being explored for steel production. The UK, once a leader in industrial innovation, risks lagging behind by committing solely to EAFs.

While the closure of the UK’s blast furnaces represents a significant step towards reducing carbon emissions, it also underscores a broader issue: the need for a more ambitious and innovative approach to steelmaking. The country that once spearheaded the Industrial Revolution must now rise to the challenge of leading the next wave of industrial innovation.

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Business

Calls for extra charges for holiday let owners to be relaxed

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A CALL for an update on Pembrokeshire County Council’s position on a potential relaxation of the ‘182-day’ rule, allowing self-catering accommodation to avoid paying a council tax premium is to be heard later this week.

Last year, the rules on holiday lets in Wales changed; Welsh Government criteria saying holiday lets must be filled for 182 days a year – up from a previous 70 – in order to qualify for business rates rather than pay second homes council tax.

In Pembrokeshire, second homes, and self-catering businesses not meeting the criteria, are now paying a 200 per cent council tax premium in the county, effectively a treble rate of council tax.

At the July 18 meeting of full council, a question submitted by leader of the Independent Group, Cllr Huw Murphy will be heard, a follow-up from a previously submitted notice of motion where he had called for a relaxation in the ‘182-day’ rules in the county.

Cllr Murphy will ask: “At full council on October 12, 2023, I submitted a Notice of Motion (NoM) requesting that PCC use its discretionary relief policy regarding the current 182-day occupancy rule for self-catering accommodation and reduce the eligibility criteria to 140 days in support of the tourism industry.

“This NoM was debated by Cabinet on Dec 4, 2023, where it was not adopted but would be reviewed in 12 months following the impact of legislative change where evidence to support potential change to the 182-day occupancy rule will have been gathered.

“Furthermore, Cabinet stated they would write to Welsh Government to highlight concern over the 182-day occupancy rule and to be provided with information on how the current regulations are working both in Pembrokeshire and the rest of Wales, to support a review in 12 months’ time.

“Nine months have elapsed since this NoM was presented to Council in Oct 2023 and seven months since Cabinet debated it with two recommendations and this question is submitted in two parts.

“Can Council be provided with an update of what data has been obtained since Dec 2023 to examine the impact of the 182-day occupancy rule for self-catering properties in advance of a review to be completed by December 2024 prior to any decision over what level of second home council tax to be levied for 2024/25 as it may be necessary to consider a reduction to support an industry under pressure?

“Have PCC received a reply from WG with regards to the concerns raised with regards to the 182-day rule and its impact on the Pembrokeshire tourism industry?”

Cllr Murphy’s questions will be heard at the full council meeting.

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Business

Concerns over risk to public funds in TVR deal

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TAXPAYERS could face a multi-million-pound bill after the Welsh Government spent more than £14m on a failed attempt to attract sports car manufacturer TVR to Wales.

Adrian Crompton, the auditor general for Wales, said the Welsh Government spent £4.75m buying the former Techboard factory in 2021 and £7.6m on refurbishment.

TVR received a £2m five-year loan and a £500,000 investment from the public purse, with the aim of creating 150 jobs and building 2,000 sports cars in Ebbw Vale by 2020.

But at the turn of 2024, the carmaker confirmed it no longer wants to lease the factory – or locate production in Wales – after announcing a new base in Hampshire.

Mr Crompton, who oversees the annual audit of some £24bn of public money, said selling the building for a market value of about £7.5m would net taxpayers a loss of £4.85m.

In a letter dated July 12, he told a Senedd committee that ministers have been trying to find an alternative tenant since November, with TVR paying a £322-a-month rent in that time.

Mr Crompton wrote that the 180,000 sq ft factory – which could generate an income of about £735,000 a year – has attracted some market interest but no formal offers.

Wales’ auditor general said Welsh Government officials’ advice was not to award a contract for the factory refurbishment in advance of a lease agreement with TVR

But he told the public accounts committee: “In August 2020, the minister wrote to TVR telling them the Welsh Government would progress refurbishment with or without them.”

Refurbishment of the factory, which was initially expected to cost £4.5m in 2017, was finally completed in July 2023 with the budget having ballooned to £7.6m.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for a botched investment in the company’s shares, the letter revealed, despite TVR being deemed a high-risk business at the time.

The Welsh Government bought 3.3% of the sports car manufacturer in 2016 but the public’s stake in the company has since more than halved to 1.6%.

TVR received a multi-million investment as part of a joint venture with Ensorcia, a lithium-mining business, which diluted the Welsh Government’s shareholding in 2021.

In May, ministers received external advice about the TVR stake – including a lower valuation than paid in 2016 – and secured an option to sell the shares back to the company.

Officials are now preparing ministerial advice for a decision on whether to sell the shares at a loss or retain the investment in the hope the price increases.

Mr Crompton said TVR breached loan requirements in September 2016 because it had not secured a promised £5.5m private-sector investment to start production.

He added that TVR negotiated extensions to the Welsh Government’s loan default requirement, which otherwise would have led to early repayment in full

In April 2022, TVR paid the Welsh Government £4.3m, covering the £2m loan and accrued interest, which released the company from a requirement to base itself in Wales.

Mr Crompton wrote: “The Welsh Government had to extend the loan repayment period but still achieved a return on investment when TVR eventually repaid it….

“Full repayment has now removed the conditions that were originally attached to the loan.”

In his briefing, the auditor general said he reviewed Welsh Government support for TVR after receiving correspondence that expressed concerns about the risk to public funds.

Mr Crompton pointed out that the public purse will have incurred further costs in terms of officials’ time over many years, external advice and professional fees.

Ministers’ attempts to woo TVR coincided with the failed £425m Circuit of Wales project.

The proposals for a motor racing circuit in Blaenau Gwent collapsed in 2017, with Ken Skates, then-economy minister, refusing to underwrite a £210m loan.

In 2020, Mr Skates wrote off nearly £15m related to loans for the Circuit of Wales after failing to claw back taxpayers’ money.

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