A bridge too far for UK steel

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2016

Fred starr recollects...

Back in 1964 we all laughed when Dr Houseman, the smartest and most formal dresser in the whole of Battersea College, began his lectures on steelmaking avowing that, by the end of the century, production of mild steel would be over in Britain. Only stainless and alloy steels would be left. Bulk steel production would have moved to India and the Far East.

Those who heard these words, even if they don’t remember them, are not laughing now. What has happened at Port Talbot, Redcar and Scunthorpe is a further step in the decline of the UK steel industry. But Houseman, the Metallurgy Department’s well-dressed Jeremiah, did not conceive that it would be decisions made by company owners in India and Indonesia that would determine whether Britain would remain a steelmaking country. 

Coming from Teesside and having just joined Dorman Long, Britain’s biggest producer of structural steel, I could not believe that the company’s ten-mile riverside stretch of coke ovens, sinter plants, blast furnaces, steel plants and rolling mills was doomed. But there were signs that not all was well. I started work in 1961, when the UK was suffering from one of its mini-slumps. Steel ingots had been dumped all over the works, testimony to overproduction in the 1959 pre-election boom. Despite this, the order book was four-months long, which seemed an odd way to run a business. High quality products seemed to be difficult to manufacture. It was rumoured that there had been 14 attempts to make the wire for the Forth Road Bridge suspension cables, then under construction. And in terms of the technology of steel production, Dorman Long had not missed the bus, it had jumped on the first one that came along. If it had delayed a few years, it would have been building Basic Oxygen LD plants rather than open-hearth furnaces.

Perhaps if Britain had joined the European Steel and Coal Community (ESCC) in 1951, the forerunner of the EEC, British steelmakers might have been plugged into the arrival of the LD Process as a new and fantastically productive technique. One of the understated aims of the ESCC and its immediate successor was to protect steel and coal in Europe. The perception was that, eventually, developing countries would be competing with Europe, but a combination of trade barriers, advanced technology and rationalisation would see steelmakers in Germany, France and the Benelux countries safe. These ideas have been forgotten. The watchword is now globalisation, rather than protection of European industry and its workforce.  

Efforts in the 1960s to revitalise our own industry, with Government encouragement, led to overexpansion. Since then, commercial and political pressures, especially from Europe, have led to rationalisation, a euphemism for closures. Some were well overdue. Most steel plants relied on nearby coal and ironstone mines, and had no future once these ran out. Dorman Long could have been in that category. The explosion of steelmaking on Teesside originally depended on coking coal from Durham and iron ore from the Cleveland Hills. Well before these were exhausted, Dorman Long built deep-water harbours for the import of coal and ore, and the steel plant at Redcar could not have been nearer the coast

Houseman, wherever he is now, must be looking down at the bridges over the Forth estuary with anguish and dismay. Only the three diamond trusses of the rail bridge can fill him with pride. Now 125 years old, it was the first steel bridge built in Britain. Its belated successor, the first road bridge across the Forth will be lucky to reach half that age. Underspecified when opened in 1964, increased traffic, heavier trucks and skimped maintenance promise an imminent demise. It was at least homegrown. British in design, steel from Dorman Long, and construction by Cleveland Bridge and Engineering. Its replacement at Queensferry is a most elegant cable stayed bridge, done by an international conglomerate, but doesn’t seem to have much UK involvement. And, in line with the way we do things now, the steel comes from China! Is then, as a pointer to our future, the Queensferry crossing a bridge too far?