It was unfortunate timing, to say the least. As Britain invites the all-powerful Chinese president Ji Xinping for a state visit, thousands of jobs in our steel industry are lost, largely because of the uninvited dumping globally of Chinese steel. The country’s exports in the month of September, a record 12 million tonnes, were equivalent to the UK’s entire output in 2014.
These are still early days for us to appreciate the full impact of Tata closing three plants so soon after SSI had pulled the plug on Teesside. But more than 3,000 careers have been shattered and key skills lost in areas already blighted by industrial change. As ever, ministers roll out action plans with working groups when the ‘big boys’ make the headlines, but the 11,000 firms in the UK metals industry average 21 people apiece and each has their own challenges and most will have to struggle on unaided.
Many are recyclers, for whom plummeting steel prices have had a direct and alarming knock-on effect. Global demand is expected to decline by 1.7% this year, so the picture remains gloomy. The Metals Forum’s call to arms follows seven months’ hard work from member associations, including the British Metals Recycling Association, which could see the writing on the wall.
It was heartening to hear at the launch BIS minister Anna Soubry talking unofficially - or “naughtily” as she put it - of the need for extra backing for metal recyclers. But tax incentives for products using secondary materials are down to the Treasury, and this would not be the first time in the past five years that ministers in the two departments sang from different hymn sheets when it came to hard cash, even if this time they are in the same party.
Recyclers outside the metals industries have also called for such incentives or ‘pull mechanisms’ to boost resource efficiency, most recently the manifesto from the new Resources & Waste UK. But these calls do not appear to have gained traction with Defra ministers, and it will be years before new Brussels-led directives are implemented in the UK.
Perhaps the waste industry needs the equivalent of the Metals Forum representing all the key voices. One possibility would be an enhanced role for the RWM Ambassadors, who have been recruited from across the sector and share goals, despite the potential for conflicting interests.