Author: Jack Blanchard
POSTCARD FROM PORT TALBOT
LIFE’S A BEACH: The sands at Aberavon stretch for three miles along the south Wales coast and look magnificent even on a wet and blustery afternoon. It’s hardly a day for sunbathing, but walkers are still out along the prom enjoying the fresh sea air and a group of hardy surfers in wetsuits are braving the swell. Eventually the eye is inevitably drawn to the far eastern end of the beach, where the natural beauty is subsumed by the hulking shadow of the Port Talbot steelworks, dominating the horizon. “It puts some people off,” says Stephen Kinnock, the local MP and son of the former Labour leader. “But I’ve always thought that’s what Wales is, in many ways. An industrial heartland set in a very beautiful place.”
Steeled for the future: At its peak in the 1960s, the steelworks employed almost 20,000 men — the largest single employer in Wales. Over the years the numbers have tumbled dramatically, but with 4,000 skilled employees today it remains the lifeblood of this small coastal town. “It is the town,” says John Tetsill, who worked for more than 30 years at the steelworks and was the Community union’s local organizer. “The community is built around the steel industry. You can’t imagine Port Talbot without it. None of this would exist, really.” In 2016, however, the town had to confront that very real possibility when owner Tata announced plans to sell up. After a long and very vocal national campaign the steelworks remain open for now — but no one here is under any illusion the jobs are now safe. “It all feels very precarious,” Kinnock says. “And the big worry now is what happens with Brexit.”
On the waterfront: We’re in a smart waterfront café called Remo’s, where Kinnock has invited several former steelworkers to come and speak to me about the importance of the plant and their fears for its future. Dave Bowyer worked at the plant for decades before retiring three years ago, and tells me his grandfather, father, brother, cousin, nephew and son-in-law all had jobs there too. “I always say it’s my business!” he chuckles. “But it’s not just those jobs. It’s all the other businesses too. The cafés, the corner shops. My mate’s got an industrial clothing company — he supplies them and he’s got 13 people working for them. They could all be unemployed if it disappears.”
Fear of the future: Kinnock’s chief worry is the knock-on effect a no-deal Brexit could have on this community. His concern is not with tariffs on steel, he says, but on the car industry that Port Talbot supplies. “They make the steel for Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Vauxhall Astra, Ford,” he says. “A 10 percent tariff for the car industry is a very serious thing — but it’s much more about the threat to a deep, highly integrated ‘just in time’ supply chain. I know a bit about how these big global corporations make their investment decisions. Every year they have to do a lot of internal bidding about where the investment should go. You only need a marginal shift in risk to go somewhere else.” A collapse in automotive orders could “kill” the Port Talbot plant dead, he fears, and with it the town it supports.”
Where do we go from here? Kinnock is no supporter of a second referendum, but says he will back “whatever it takes” now to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Not everyone in the town shares his view. Neath Port Talbot, the local council area, voted 57 percent Leave in 2016, and Kinnock says attitudes are now “hardening” in favour of no deal. Kinnock has long been a proponent for a Norway-style exit — or “Common Market 2.0,” as he and former Tory MP Nick Boles rebranded it — but accepts the middle ground between no deal and no Brexit is fast ebbing away. “Yeah, and I think that’s a tragedy,” he said. “And I’m afraid we have been complicit on that on the Labour side.”
Like Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, Kinnock says he was finally ready to back Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill before the last vote was pulled and the PM stepped down. “We had guarantees on workers’ rights, a customs union at least until the next election and even a vote on a second referendum at committee stage,” he says. “We should have gone for that. There was a knee-jerk reaction and Labour dismissed it out of hand … That set in chain a motion of events that led to resignation of Theresa May, and we put the future of the country in the hands of 160,000 Tory no dealers. I regret it deeply.” Does he regret not voting for May’s deal at one of the earlier votes? He sighs. “If I’d have had a crystal ball and I’d have been able to see that x, y and z were going to happen, and that we’d end up with Boris Johnson as PM pursuing a no-deal policy, then yeah — I probably would have done differently. But I always felt there was a negotiation going on.” He is fearful of Labour campaigning for a second referendum — “that would not be a vote winner around here” — and wants his party to offer to back the WAB if Boris Johnson brings it forward for a vote. Good luck, as they say, with that.
Out of step: Kinnock, of course, is famously pro-European. His dad went on to be an EU commissioner; his wife was prime minister of Denmark. And yet here he is representing a pro-Brexit community. Does he feel out of step? “I did see it coming,” he says of the 2016 vote. “Out campaigning on the bridge in town, the number of people saying we’ve got to stop all these immigrants coming — and this town doesn’t really have any. Look around you — it’s 98 percent local, Welsh, white working- and middle-class people. I knew then that there was a problem for the campaign. And you consider how much Wales has received in [EU] structural funds, and that wasn’t cutting through at all. A lot of people were just saying well — we’ll just keep the money and spend it ourselves. I was saying if there’s a Tory government in London, do you really think you’ll get as good a deal as you get from Brussels? People said ‘oh well, at least we’ll be able to kick them out.’ So they swallowed all of those lines — and I think that’s in many ways understandable. People have seen the decline of the number of men employed at the steelworks, they’ve seen the decline of the high street — nothing to do with the EU really — and have a kind of sense of wondering what’s happened to our community? And a lot of people felt I think that they had nothing to lose.”
Up the valley: Driving out of Port Talbot and up into the Afan Valley, what people stand to lose if the steelworks did close becomes all too clear. At the top of the valley are three former coalfield mining villages — Blaengwynfi, Glyncorrwg and Cymmer. Years ago they were thriving centers with thousands of residents, bustling high streets, schools and pubs and all the rest. Kinnock says can they feel like “ghost towns” these days. “The coalmines closed down, and there was absolutely no Plan B up there,” he says. “And you’re just not going to get industry to move to those places. So the real investment then should have been in infrastructure — to make it much, much easier for people to come down from the Valleys, so they could stay up there but come down to Port Talbot for work.” It didn’t happen. The bus services are dire. There’s discussion about a Cardiff Metro system, but no clarity on if it will go ahead and whether it would stretch that far up the Valleys. In the meantime, the villages are fading away. “The youngsters are moving out and they don’t come back,” Kinnock says.
Another era: We drive along a winding road up through thick wooded hillside to the South Wales Miners’ Museum, a volunteer-run treasure trove for the industry that once employed thousands of men in this valley. Steve, who worked as an electrician down the pit for more than a decade, meets us at the door and shows us round — pointing out the helmets, lamps and other equipment he and his colleagues used to wear. He says he still finds it strange showing visitors around a museum to an industry he once took for granted. “We enjoyed the work, we enjoyed the camaraderie — but don’t let anyone tell you it’s what they wanted for their children,” he says. It’s not the loss of the mining industry these guys mourn, but the loss of community that went with it. “You’re pretty much isolated up here,” he says. “And the bus services are not so regular now with the cuts, and the school has closed now. There’s no comprehensive school in the valley — that’s just gone. It’s all gone, really.”
A different future: Enterprising residents are trying to create new industries in the area to replace the old, but it’s tough going. One big attraction is the stunning hills, of course, and a far-sighted council team a few years back was smart enough to lay out some of the best mountain bike tracks in the world. Next door to the mining museum is Afan Valley Bike Shed, where proprietor Ben Threlfall has set up a thriving business renting out bikes and equipment and offering tours to enthusiasts from around the globe. He started up the business out the back of his van in the car park seven years ago but now runs an impressive — and expanding — visitor center. “They come from all over,” he tells us with a grin. Back down in the town, the council is working up a plan for a contemporary art gallery, perhaps showing exclusively street art. The centerpiece will be an enormous mural by Banksy, which appeared one night on a garage wall and was sold by the surprised owner for a hefty six-figure sum. They’re applying to the Welsh government for a grant and hope to open a proper gallery next year. “There are lots of things happening, lots of things people are trying to make happen,” Kinnock says. “But it all comes back to the steelworks in the end. We’ve seen what happens when these industries are allowed to disappear. We can’t let that happen again here.”