Huge steel works dominated the landscape and there was a sense of pride that the words ‘Made in Sheffield’ could be found etched on cutlery all over the world.
But despite this appreciation of our Steel City heritage, the prevailing narrative was one of decline.
Like many others, I thought steel was in our past.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Penistone & Stocksbridge, the first Conservative MP for Sheffield in a generation.
Stocksbridge is a town on the Northern edge of Sheffield with rich history of steel manufacture.
The works built by Samuel Fox – where the Paragon umbrella frame was invented – employed 11,000 people in its heyday and provided the social infrastructure that established the proud community we see today.
As a new MP, one of my first visits was to Speciality Steel in Stocksbridge, a site more than two miles long and served by its own railway line.
Despite the reduction in workforce, it soon became clear that this was not an industry of the past. The Stocksbridge plant is more like a lab than a factory, producing high value components for the aerospace industry using world-class engineering techniques.
As I talked with managers and employees about the essential role played by steel in almost every aspect of our lives, I began to realise that modern steel manufacturing is a hi-tech industry of critical importance to our British economy.
Yet, despite our great need for steel, the UK industry is struggling following years of high energy prices, uncertainty around procurement and now Covid.
This is why the report A Test of Mettle published this week by the think-tank Common Wealth is so timely, because it highlights the choice we now face. Either we get behind UK steel or we face the consequences.
We need steel for every one of our infrastructure and net zero ambitions; trains, wind turbines, electric cars and nuclear power all require steel, and there is a strong economic, environmental, security and moral case for producing that steel here in the UK.
Investing in UK steel will give great economic returns. For every tonne of UK steel produced, £880 is added to the UK economy. Steel work is well-paid, with wages a significant 46 per cent higher than average here in Yorkshire.
There is a clear environmental case for producing more of our steel in the UK. Globally, the industry accounts for nine per cent of CO2 emissions, but UK steel has half the carbon footprint of Chinese imports.
It would be counterproductive to let our domestic steel sector decline while importing dirtier steel from abroad.
But even here in the UK, we must commit more to the development of ‘green steel’ manufacturing processes such as the Swedish hydrogen-based steelmaking plant HYBRIT if we are to reach net zero.
With investment, the UK is well-placed to lead the world in this space, increasing global demand for our home-grown green steel.
The UK can also get ahead in a $2.5 trillion market by developing and then selling the tech to decarbonise the global steel sector.
The benefits of a thriving steel sector are not just environmental but geopolitical. In a volatile world, a strong domestic steel sector is a vital pillar of economic independence, industrial resilience and national security.
Covid-19 has shown the benefits of UK-based manufacturing; retaining and growing a thriving green steel sector is a safeguard for future industrial capability as we embark on our new journey as ‘Global Britain’.
But perhaps the most compelling case for UK steel is a moral one. ‘Levelling up’ is ultimately a moral ambition, recognising that the prosperity of modern Britain was built on the sweat and toil of communities like Stocksbridge.
The steel industry in its prime provided good work and social security; replacing this with call centres and retail jobs just hasn’t cut it.
Steel is not only the past, it should also be the future for these communities, at the cutting edge of green technology, with well paid, secure, productive jobs.
A Test of Mettle presents a clear choice. If we do nothing, the UK steel industry will flounder with a devastating impact on jobs, communities and the environment.
Or we can get behind the sector, putting UK steel at the heart of our industrial strategy, securing the supply we need to meet net zero and level up our economy.
Miriam Cates is Conservative MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge.
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