Port Talbot is one of those places that you could pass through while driving down the M4, and dismiss as little more than a “grim steel town” beside the motorway. In this retelling of a familiar stereotype, this town in South Wales, home to some 37,000 people, serves as British “flyover country” – the phrase describing the places between America’s East and West Coasts, which has gained popularity since the political rise of Donald Trump.
Port Talbot is not only bisected by the ugly scar of a four-lane motorway, it is also home to Wales’ last remaining steelworks – a facility that once produced so much air pollution that locals used to wake up in the morning to find their houses coated in a layer of fine black dust. These days, this industrial snow is less common. But the steelworks remains the town’s largest and most important employer, and it seems little has changed in terms of the stereotype of Port Talbot as a place not worth stopping for.
In the spring of 2016, around the time of the Brexit referendum, a group of twelve international photography students from Westminster University in London did choose to stop. They rented a house a stone’s throw from the steelworks, and spent two months patrolling the beaches, hills, and streets of Port Talbot with their cameras, seeking to capture the day-to-day life of the community.
The photo essays that emerged became known as The Port Talbot Photo Project. They included a series by Laurène Becquart about teenagers caught in the “in-between” period separating childhood and adulthood; another by Mariela Ganeva on the charm and struggles of local cafés and bars; and “Bypassed” by Nick St. Oegger, which traced the history and impact of the M4 motorway which passes over – and in some cases, through – the streets of Port Talbot.
Among those Nick met and interviewed for the project were three generations of the Ross family: Tommie Ross, who helped build the original motorway bypass in the 1960s; Peter Ross, a retired steelworker; and Anthony Ross, now a law student at Cardiff University. But when Nick and his fellow students first arrived, Anthony was one of many in Port Talbot who were skeptical of the project’s value, and dismissive of what inspiration the town had to offer them. When I spoke to him recently, Anthony recalled his initial reaction to the arrival of the students and their cameras: “What the fuck are you guys doing here? What could you possibly see or want to see in Port Talbot?”
But as he got to know the students and began to engage with their work, Anthony changed his mind. One evening, during an interview for “Bypassed”, he recalled climbing up to the old radar station above his house when he was young, so he could look back at the town below. “There’s just a nice view to take in everything that’s happening in Port Talbot,” he explained, before adding: “It gets slated by the people who live here – more than by people who don’t bother passing through.”
PORT TALBOT’S STEELWORKS still looms large over the physical landscape of the town, whose people it has long employed. But it no longer holds the same economic clout that it once did. In 1953, when the current steelworks – or the “works” as locals refer to it – opened, it employed more than 18,000 people – literally half the town. Today, that number is down to just 4,000. But the work’s towering chimneys and sprawling superstructure continue to support two large blast furnaces – producing five million tonnes of steel per year, more than half the UK’s total output. It is still described as the “beating heart” of Port Talbot, and by some as “the heart of the dragon” for its importance to the economy of South Wales. In 2016, researchers at Cardiff University estimated that the total economic value of the plant was £3.2 billion.
But a cloud of uncertainty has long hung over this “beating heart” of Welsh industry. In 2007, amid fears that the steelworks would close, Tata Steel Europe – a division of an Indian multinational corporation – took over the plant from the debt-laden Corus Group. The deal was meant to safeguard the steelworks – and Port Talbot. Lord Bhattacharyya, who brokered the deal, later remarked: “If Tata had not come in, well, Port Talbot would not be there today.”
In 2016, less than a decade later, the steelworks was in trouble again. The plant was running at a loss of one million pounds per day, and Tata tried to sell the works (and a similar plant in Scunthorpe) to yet another private buyer. A few months later, Tata changed its mind, and after heavy lobbying by politicians, it made a firm five-year commitment to Port Talbot. The Scunthorpe plant was sold for just £1 to a private investment firm which set up a new entity called British Steel.
Today, British Steel has been placed in compulsory liquidation, and the Scunthorpe steelworks – which employs some 5,000 people – remains in operation thanks to emergency government funding. Meanwhile, other leading manufacturers are cutting staff, or closing down their UK operations. Bombardier, a Canadian aircraft company, has put its Belfast factory up for sale; Jaguar Land Rover plans to cut 2,000 jobs in the UK; and James Dyson, a leading industrial inventor and prominent Brexit supporter, has recently shifted his company’s headquarters to Singapore.
These events have thrown fresh light on the issues faced by industrial manufacturing as Britain leaves the EU. Wary of becoming dependent on China for steel (at around 800,000 tonnes per year, China’s steel output is one hundred times that of the UK), there have been calls for the UK’s remaining steel plants to be nationalised. Shortfalls in profit would have to be made up through state funding, but the move would secure thousands of well-paid jobs (the average steelworker earns between £32,000 and £36,000 per year, far higher than the UK average wage).
Peter Ross has spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the steelworks. “Pete”, as his mates call him, is sixty-two and has a sharp sense of humour, coupled with a penchant for locally brewed beer. He is also something of a pillar of the community. He volunteers at the local YMCA in his spare time, where he runs weekly climbing classes for children and teenagers, leading weekend trips into the surrounding hills and valleys. Pete’s house in Margam, a suburb of Port Talbot, is filled with framed photographs of him climbing and kayaking, as well as a shot of him riding a Harley Davidson through the Mojave Desert in California.
Now retired, Pete spent most of his working life in and around the steelworks, and he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the future of the plant. “There will be another crisis,” he believes. But he doesn’t see a future crisis as a precursor to the collapse of the town itself. In the 1970s, when the steelworks employed 15,000 people, closure “would have killed the town dead”, he says. “Today, no.” Besides, he adds, “the last thing [the politicians] want is for this place to be here with no work whatsoever ... so what they do is they bring in as many call centres – as many easy jobs – that people could be paid minimum wage [to do]; and they just put a couple of factories on the site they could put people into.”
But the real future of the town, Pete believes, is tourism. In the late-1950s, Port Talbot almost became a seaside tourist town. At the time, the local council considered developing a “Butlin’s style” camp – a moderately priced holiday village where families could spend a week or two swimming, sunbathing, and enjoying a packed schedule of entertainment. But the call of heavy industry won out, and the council eventually approved the construction of BP Baglan Bay, a chemical works, and the development of the sprawling Sandfields Estate, now a run-down suburb near the beach.
In the face of the uncertainty around the steelworks, Pete believes that it’s time to revive this plan. But he accepts that it will not be easy. Pete explains two big downsides to this plan: “The crash in 2008: it took all the money away, so it meant that [the council] haven’t been able to do what they were hoping to do.” The other “downside”, in his view, is Brexit. “We’re now losing access to European money,” he says, referring to the development funds provided by the EU to Wales, “so the biggest pot that this town was able to claim money from, is being taken away. So we’re losing out on both of those fronts – and that’s a massive hit.”