A spectacular future is within our grasp for steel in Britain - Jon Bolton

Jon Bolton
Jon Bolton
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There’s no point in hiding it – it’s been another tough year for Britain’s steel industry.

Weak demand from the automotive industry, high energy costs and uncertainty around Brexit have coincided to create heavy weather.

The ongoing saga around the insolvency of British Steel, now in its eighth month, is a symptom of that malaise. And this will be keenly felt in Yorkshire and the South Humber – 9,000 people in this region work directly in the production of steel, and five times as many jobs in the community depend on the industry.

Steel, by its very nature, is susceptible to peaks and troughs as economic activity and commodity prices fluctuate.

But it’s not enough simply to throw up our arms and bemoan market forces.

Take a walk around our towns and cities and steel is wherever you look. Bridges, buildings, flood defences, railways, road signs, cars, aircraft – all have steel at their core. It’s vital to our

infrastructure and it adds huge value.

An industrial strategy for the UK must have steel at its heart – and if we are smart, we can create such a strategy that puts us ahead of our international competitors. Steel is on the cusp of a transformation and three shifts - environmental, financial and structural – present opportunities.

Environmentally, a move towards recycling could reduce carbon emissions by more than 60% within the next five years and lead a path to zero-carbon steelmaking.

The UK produces ten million tonnes of scrap steel annually, which is presently shipped overseas with no added value – this could, instead, be re-melted in electric arc furnaces to produce new steel, under a model pioneered by Liberty Steel right here in Britain.

In financial terms, new technology, combined with an affordable power supply, could make the industry more competitive.

Britain has a tradition of innovation in materials processing, which gives us an advantage in technological expertise.

And we have a relatively low emission electricity grid with wind, nuclear, tidal and solar playing a part – if power prices for industry could be pitched at a reasonable level, we could lead the way in low-carbon steel production.

Structurally, the UK steel industry is transforming through changes in ownership which could, if the right choices are made, lead to consolidation under rational, strategic stewardship.

I’ve worked in steel for 40 years, spending much of that time at several businesses now within British Steel.

Those businesses employ passionate, skilled people and are the heart of their local communities.

It’s vital that they’re acquired by responsible buyers willing to invest in equipment and people in a way that makes them thrive.

Simply increasing the volume of production at British Steel won’t work. That reinvigoration is only possible by adopting competitive, sustainable technologies and by matching capacity, and products, to market demand.

Steel is the world’s most used metal – we make over 200 kilograms of liquid steel each year for every person on the planet. Jobs based on steel are valuable: they are well paid, highly skilled and have an impressive “multiplier” impact on local communities.

And the global market is set to double over the next 30 years as low and middle-income countries urbanise.

As a nation, we’re importing more than six million tonnes of steel annually, which is creating almost twelve million tonnes of CO2 emissions where it is produced.

That makes no sense - it’s time to halt that march of imports and snatch back the initiative.

Across Europe, the sector has been under pressure from low-cost production from emerging markets – notably China, which takes just two days to produce all the steel Britain makes in a year.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can be the first nation in the world to truly embrace decarbonised metal.

Steel is a strategic national asset – and we must work together on a vision to make it a success in the UK. There is a positive future within our grasp for this vital industry, the question is will we make the brave choices needed to allow this potential to bear fruit?

Jon Bolton is an adviser to the steel industry. He is a former senior executive at Liberty Steel and Tata Steel, and was previously joint chair of the government’s Steel Council.