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A combination of fierce international competition and high domestic costs has made many UK steel plants struggle to be competitive in a global market. The end of the Brexit transition period, the coronavirus pandemic, and an increased focus on steel decarbonisation, are raising the spotlight on Government strategy and policy on the steel industry once again.

This briefing sets out the scale of the UK steel industry, issues facing the sector in recent years including the 2015/16 crisis and Government policy on the sector.

The industry in 2020

In 2020 the UK steel industry contributed £2.0 billion to the UK economy in terms of gross value added (GVA). This was equivalent to 0.1% of total UK economic output and 1.2% of manufacturing output.

There are 1,100 business in the UK steel industry.

The industry supported 33,400 jobs in the UK in 2019, 0.1% of all UK jobs.

The international picture

In 2019, the UK produced 7 million tonnes of steel; China produced 996 million tonnes.

The EU produced 157 million tonnes of steel in 2019, 8% of the world total. The UK (then still an EU member state) was the eighth largest steel producer in the EU, after Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Austria.

Prospects for the UK steel industry

The recent fall in international demand for steel, combined with continuing growth in production has created a glut of steel on the international market. This has pushed steel prices down, magnifying the comparative expense of steel produced in the UK, where overheads are higher than in some other countries.

The years around 2015/16 were a period of upheaval in the steel industry, with a series of plant closures, company mergers and staff lay-offs. The resilience of the UK steel sector continues to be a concern with steel producers continuing struggle with profitability.

Demand for steel fell significantly during the first coronavirus lockdown in early 2020 as construction and manufacturing sectors stalled leaving some companies facing liquidity issues. Additionally, the sector requires considerable further investment to meet decarbonisation targets, which will likely raise costs of production further.

Government policy on steel

The Government has said it is committed to supporting and securing a future for UK steel which it describes as a “vital” industry. Measures taken by the Government to support the steel sector in recent years include:

  • Publishing an infrastructure pipeline which sets out the UK’s future infrastructure needs to beyond 2030. This is intended to help producers understand steel requirements in the UK over the next decades, enabling capacity planning.
  • Committing to support UK steel manufacturers through public procurement policy including setting guidance for the public sector on steel procurement.
  • Providing compensation for energy intensive industries for indirect costs (higher electricity prices) incurred from low-carbon energy and emissions polices.

Steel industry stakeholders have been consistently calling for further governments support, particularly on energy prices and through public procurement for some years. The Labour Party has called for a more concrete strategy for the sector, including stronger targets and guarantees to “buy British” in public procurement.

Steel safeguards

While the UK an EU Member State (and during the transition period), EU trade remedies designed to protect domestic industry from cheap imports of certain steel products, such as steel safeguards and anti-dumping measures, applied to certain steel imports to the UK.

Some of these remedies have been transitioned into the UK trade remedies system at least temporarily. Steel safeguard measures transitioned are due to expire on 30 June 2021. The Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) recommended in June that some steel safeguard measures be extended and some be revoked from 1 July 2021. Steel industry stakeholders and the Labour Party said the recommendation to revoke certain safeguards was “deeply disappointing” for the steel industry and its workers. The TRA’s recommendation now goes to the Secretary of State for International Trade who will make the final decision on whether to accept the recommendation.

EU steel safeguards now apply to UK exports to the EU; this means there is a quota on imports of certain steel products to the EU above which a 25% tariff is levied.

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