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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

British steel ruled - once upon a time

Depot steelwork, track and most of the trams inside - with British manufacture and most approaching eighty years of service. Photo : John Woodman

The current stress test being performed in Downing Street to determine whether the lives and futures of around 40,000 people are worth more than the financing of a new nuclear power station (or two) with Chinese investment - and the tradeoff of importing lower/lowest cost steel produced in China and sold at below cost on world markets - especially to car assembly plants (not UK owned) located in Britain makes things a pretty hard call for the political rulers. I'm not taking bets.

Once upon a time life was much simpler. Protective barriers in many markets ensured that strategic industrial resources (and skills) were not bargained away by so called 'free trade' exponents. Regrettably the once apparent level playing fields which pit lower cost production nations with scant concern over health and safety or environmental constraints for their companies and workers - against the regulation bound mantra that is the voice of an army of European Community unelected and unconstrained officials - means any/all trading balances are skewed to favour only one direction. And it certainly isn't South Wales or other pockets of heavy industry which make up the residual UK steel 'industry' - itself in the ownership of a Bombay based conglomerate. So much for this end game of a certain Party's privatisation fixation. Bargain basement sell off of national assets has brought us to dependency on foreign interests from Shanghai to Bombay, from the owners of Cadbury and Walmart (read Asda) all sucking profits out of every high street in Britain.

Blackpool Tower was undoubtedly created with British Steel and British labour. The idea that this town's founders could contemplate importing 'foreign' steel would have been an anethma. Indeed the Royal Navy's almost pre-eminent role on the high seas around the world came through a wholly home based integrated industrial infrastructure ending with the armaments sector. The latter still remains with us for the most part, and certainly not in the hands of number crunching accountants in the Indian sub continent or indeed in China.

A residual piece of UK steel industry can be found at Rigby Road - where Council contracts over successive years saw the erection of an expanded bus garage in the 1920s and a brand new tram depot in the mid 1930s. Both were built to house the enlarged Corporation bus and tram fleets then coming on stream from plants in Blackpool, Leyland, Preston and Loughborough. Over 115 new trams and 120 new buses - constructed with 100% UK labour and content would be the backbone of Blackpool's municipal transport operation well into the 1960s. Further trams and buses commissioned as replacements still came from Wakefield, Blackburn and the West Midlands.

Below : A once famous Sheffield tram track manufacturing company - poignant reminder at Rigby Road depot approach. They don't make 'em like they used to.......

The original steel fabrication for the Bus Garage and Tram Depot are still in place - as is the steel structure of the 1939 Corporation Car Park on Talbot Road. Tram track - a vital element for operating trams naturally came from Sheffield - where else. The £100 Million plus light rail upgrade saw the rails ripped out in favour of new track from Austria and Germany. Only at Rigby Road on the depot access tracks can one still make out evidence of UK specialist steel suppliers whose names remain embedded on pointwork. It is all over eighty years old but still providing service, albeit with quite a lot of patching up and tlc on the part of the Council's track gang.

Not a lot to expect this Labour controlled Council to insist on any further tram rail for the planned (short) extension and special point work - to be sourced from British steel manufacturing as statement of this town's support for threatened communities elsewhere in Wales and England.

Or is it? Are we to expect the same sad declarations that EU rules prevent local procurement to insist on lowest cost supply from wherever it is being offloaded into this market at marked down prices? Tell that to the Germans and the French tram operating companies - where a somewhat different approach is evident.

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