Thanks to St Modwen's for Saturday's strirring visit to a place that is both new and familiar to me. High quality new homes have been built on the old steelworks site. The transformation is wonderful.
Two resting Gwent Dragons, Matthew Screech and Cory Hill, oppened the fine new houses. The start of a great day when their fellow players beat Stade Francaise by 38 points to 22.
"From natural beauty to industry and now back to natural beauty.
Before the Llanwern steelworks arrived the site was a beautiful part of Wales' only fenland. In 1962 it was transformed into a massive four mile long steelworks. The ancient drainage of willow-lined reens survived modified into the industrial landscape. The steelworks protected the site as far as and added a new lake that rapidly became a wildlife habitat.
The loss of skilled well paid jobs is bitterly regretted. But having worked at the steelworks from 1962 to 1984 it is deeply satisfying to see new natural beauty emerge. St Modwen has earned the gratitude of Newport with the sensitive development of a new community which will combine lakeside living with fine community amenities. Croeso Glan Llyn."
How the dream faded
Extract from my book 'The Unusual Suspect'.
'Our first awkward nervous negotiation for a pay increase succeeded beyond our fevered imaginations. We gained a rise of nearly 25 per cent. We had asked for 40 per cent. My role placed me, psychologically, in conflict with the managerial tribe. There was no chance of any promotion. Shop stewards were cast as agents of antagonism and confrontation. One dispute about the safety of a new procedure for identifying nitrogen in steel resulted in a bitter altercation with management. My promotion goose was cooked. For the rest of my time at Llanwern I became resigned to my fate working under bosses for whom I had decreasing respect.
Work became a meaningless chore, which I performed with my mind and imagination detached. So what? I had the joy of witnessing the daily miracle of my two young children discovering their joie de vivre. I was content to prostitute my time in exchange for money to build the comfortable home that was the centre of my life.
The steelworks was a great national enterprise. A political fudge by Prime Minister Macmillan divided the giant plant between Ravenscraig in Scotland and Llanwern in Wales. Decades later, both plants suffered from that act of cowardice. The Llanwern steelworks had attracted an army of six thousand incomers from steel centres throughout the United Kingdom. The accents of Glasgow, Llanelli and Birmingham were heard more frequently than those of Gwent. In the early 1960s Llanwern enjoyed great publicity as a model, newly minted works with staff that were the elite of British steelworkers.
The dream faded fast. In the bleak, self-destructive spirit of the early 1960s the simple-minded union bigots ruled. Management was weak. The huge site encouraged the creation of small protective self-contained units. The management was remote in their hutted village on the edge of the site, at Lliswerry. The union empire built around the Cold Mill was four miles away, skirting the village of Bishton.
The works Balkanised itself into nineteen separate conspiracies all at war with each other and with management. Loyalty ended at the boundaries of each department. Success could only come from a united team, one that worked together from the point where raw materials entered in the west to the place where finished steel was dispatched in the east
New equipment saw production records broken. But the works were plagued by disputes, strikes and an endemic atmosphere of bloody- minded lethargy. At a Labour Party conference in the late 1960s Michael Foot, MP for Ebbw Vale, answered a debate in which there had been a routine demand for more investment for industry. Michael pointed to Llanwern. ‘They are up to their necks with investment there but they are not delivering the goods.’
The works were out of management’s control. It became a deeply unhappy place. Pride, excitement and hoped faded. Stories spread about the indolence and inefficiency of the workers. Demand for steel was falling and international competition was threatening Llanwern’s products in the marketplace. As a socialist and trade unionist, I was upset to see my convictions challenged. Justice for working people achieved through combined strength against greedy employers was a prime tenet of socialism. It was our answer to the bitter inequalities of wealth and power that created the cruelties of Crawshay Bailey’s work slaves and the victims of the potato famine.
Equality of power between union and management had been the aim of early socialists: the dream was that it would evolve into shared responsibility between self and community interests. At Llanwern I witnessed a cherished ideal metamorphosing into waste and abuse. Ill-disciplined union power was a bloated brainless monster. Cowed management retreated behind the barricades of their department’s defences. The worst union leaders surfaced, ignorant, self indulgent, naive and brutal. The arteries of that great works became clogged with futile contrived conflicts. Gloomy forecasts of doom were heard. The possibility of allowing the whole place to sink back into the marsh on which it was insecurely built was feared. Shock therapy was a long time coming.
In retrospect, I mourn for those wasted twenty-two years. All were on shift-work, the pattern consisting of shifts from 6.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m., from 2.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. and from 10.00 p.m. to 6.00 am. The one upside was that they were substantial numbers of shiftworkers in the local communities. That made our status as a sub-stratum of society bearable. The pattern of our lives was abnormal. The shifts undermined the routines of family and social life.
Nights out were marred because of afternoon working. The need for an early start the following day or having to leave events early to start a night shift imposed an untidy routine. Young children could not understand why father was sleeping in the middle of the day. I resented the tyranny of a life that was out of kilter with the rest of society. The shared misery brought shiftworkers together in a freemasonry of mutual interest. My work was undemanding and the long hours were made bearable only by the stimulus of intelligent companions. Overtime was regular and essential to build a decent wage. Half of my waking hours were spent in the company of the same ten men who shared my shift.
Life was monastic in its intimacy. Relationships were close, intense and potent. The spasmodic nature of the work allowed for hours of chat. We were part of a production process which had peaks of intense activity separated by periods of idleness. Friendships were forged and broken. Faults and irritating habits were magnified."