Updated: The British steel industry since the 1970s

The threat to thousands of jobs in the steel industry has been occupying the minds of ministers, regional politicians and business leaders.

Recent news reports of redundancies resulting from increased global competition have suggested that the long-term decline may deepen further.

ONS publishes employment1 estimates by detailed industry, which can be used to gauge the extent of the decline for businesses involved primarily in the manufacture of steel.

Employment and output have fallen significantly for the steel industry over the last four decades, although the picture over the last few years has been relatively stable for both.

Employment in the steel industry around a tenth of the early 1970s level

Employment in the steel industry, Great Britain, 1971 to 2014

(The breaks in the line represent slight discontinuities caused by changes in survey methods)
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Employment in the steel industry since the 1970s

In 2014, the GB steel industry2 employed 34,500 people – 0.1% of all those in employment. (Sources:  BRES 2014, ONS). Britain’s biggest steel producer, the Indian firm Tata, employs 17,000 in the UK, according to press reports.

(BRES, 2015 is due to be published in September 2016.)

The 1971 census of employment recorded 323,000 steel workers, representing 1.5% of all in employment. By 1981 this had almost halved to 167,000 (0.8%)

The decline in employment is particularly noticeable between the late 1970s and mid 1980s, with the biggest drop recorded between 1978 and 1981, when employment fell from 271,000 to 167,000.

During this time there were national strikes, employment reform and many plant closures such as those in County Durham, Northampton and Shotton.

The British Steel Corporation – a nationalised industry until 1988 – had been closing its outdated and loss-making plants to improve productivity amid losses in the region of £145million.

Employment in the steel industry fell below 100,000 in the late 1980s and, after that, declined gradually throughout the 1990s and 2000s, reaching 37,000 in 2008.

After a dip related to the 2008-2009 economic downturn, steel industry employment recovered slightly to 34,500 in 2014.

More than 4,000 job closures in the British steel industry have been announced since September 2015, according to reports in the media, including BBC News.

Employment in the steel industry by region

The distribution of employment in the steel industry across Great Britain is significantly different from that of employment in all industries. Its relative importance, jobs-wise is strongest in Yorkshire and the Humber, in Wales and in the North-East. Together these three regions contained 67% of steel industry employment in 2014 but only 16% of total employment.

Regional distribution of employment in the steel industry compared with total employment, 2014

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Increasing productivity

While employment has decreased to about one tenth of its 1970s peak, total steel industry output has fallen by only about a half over the same period. This mainly reflects increased productivity, which had broadly increased five-fold during that time.

Steel production in Great Britain, 1900 to 2015

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Data provided by the International Steel Statistics Bureau are used directly in the estimation of steel industry output in the ONS’s monthly Index of Production. These data (which are not seasonally adjusted) indicated that  the UK produced 9.5 million metric tons in 2011, the lowest crude steel production tonnage since the 1930s.

The output of the steel industry (gross value added) was £2.2bn in 2014 (current prices) (ONS, National Accounts). This represented 0.1% of the figure for all industries. This represents a decline from 1990, when it made up 0.5% of total output (ONS, National Accounts).

Export of steel

According to UK Trade, November 2015, the UK exported £6.1 billion of iron and steel in 2014. In the same year the UK imported almost as much iron and steel, though, with £5.9 billion coming in.

In 2013, the UK exported £6.1 billion in iron and steel and imported £5.3 billion.

For more information, please contact: digitalcontent@ons.gsi.gov.uk