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The fight to revive British shipbuilding

Moving a giant section of hull at BAE’s Govan yard on the Clyde: a complex and demanding engineering environment. Photo BAE Systems.

The defeat of separatism in the referendum has spurred some regeneration in Scottish shipyards. But the challenge remains: how to rebuild a vital industry laid waste by decades of contraction…

The vote for unity in the recent referendum has to be the “key in the ignition” for the rebuilding of Britain. What industry could benefit most from the Britain-wide effort that should result? With its integrated supply lines, complex cooperation and wide skills base, that would be our long established and struggling shipbuilding industry.

Over the past four decades shipbuilding has suffered major rationalisation, consolidation and mergers. The period has witnessed the almost complete decline of the commercial shipbuilding sector. With the focus on cutting edge, highly technical advanced vessels and equipment for the naval defence sector, the industry’s scope for export has been greatly limited.

‘A highly skilled shipbuilding workforce still exists and it is this body of workers that we must secure and enhance.’

What could have been a major and positive response from the workers in the industry – the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971/72 and the occupation of  Robb Caledon in Dundee – was diverted into separatism (in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, for example). Now that trend has been reversed. Once again the fight can be waged for a revived and integrated shipbuilding industry on a truly British scale.

The scourge of deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s and the implementation of the European Structural Funds (including the European Social Fund made) the commercial industry in Britain redundant. The contracts went instead to countries in Europe which subsidised their shipbuilding with the help of these structural funds.

Globalisation and the expansion of major shipbuilding capabilities in the emerging economies of South Korea, China and India excluded large scale shipbuilding – high tonnage cargo vessels, cruise liners, oil tankers – from Britain. Even the naval defence sector began to suffer a sustained period of instability as Britain's Defence Industrial Strategy fell by the wayside, and naval procurement seemed to fall into chaos.

Uncertainties surrounding the lack of fit-for-purpose equipment have plagued workers, the industry and naval defence sectors alike. Now there is a chance to restore the industry to its once unassailable position as the jewel in the crown of British industry. Within our threatened manufacturing industry, shipbuilding is a showcase of excellence in technological advance. It is, moreover, essential to have it soundly-based and enhanced as a guarantee of sovereignty.


A highly skilled shipbuilding workforce still exists and it is this body of workers that we must secure and enhance. The industry employs around 25,000 people directly – with a further 30,000 in the supply chain and providing other services to the industry.

It is an industry that has not neglected its responsibilities to train and develop apprentice schemes, and their high levels of skills are renowned worldwide. BAE Systems on the Clyde has trained on average 95 apprentices per year since 2003. Apprentices appeared at the forefront of the trade union “No to separatism – for working class unity” campaign (see Workers, October issue).

Arguing for a greater recognition of these skills and their retention, and for pay and conditions to match – as well as securing and enhancing their industry – is a task that these workers have now taken on in a more urgent way. Unions that represent them have launched campaigns to pursue these aims.

Earlier this year the Unite union launched “Navigating Excellence – A Unite strategy for driving growth in the maritime industry in the UK”. Drawn up by Ian Waddell, Unite’s National Officer for Aerospace & Shipbuilding, and Janet Golds, Research Officer for Manufacturing, it recommends a way forward for the success of the industry. It highlights the unacceptable levels of waste and mismanagement at the heart of delays and over-spending on major defence contracts. The workforce bears the brunt of such mistakes through poor pay and job losses.

‘The Britain-wide nature of the industry is best seen in submarine construction.’

The report calls for a policy of building in Britain, showing examples of large vessels being constructed abroad because of “cheapest bid wins the contract” rules. Interaction between the component parts of the industry – for example collaboration on skills and secondment instead of redundancy – are being looked at by the union.

A Britain-wide industry

The Britain-wide nature of the industry is best seen in submarine construction. The core workforce is at Barrow-in-Furness; Rolls-Royce is the main supplier; the vessels are based and maintained at HM Naval Base Clyde; Devonport backs up the operation. Another example is the “aircraft carrier alliance”. Sites run by Thales, Babcock, BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence work together all across Britain.

Starting in 2016, a decade of work will begin on 13 Type 26 Frigates by BAE Systems Maritime Submarines at Barrow-in-Furness. And BAE Systems on the Clyde at Govan has now embarked on the £350 million contract for offshore patrol vessels,  securing over 800 jobs. The contract was confirmed and signed following the “No” vote against separation in September.

Another revival following this positive vote was that of the Ferguson Shipyard in Port Glasgow on the upper Clyde. Back in September 2005 Workers wrote that “despite losing half its workforce in the past year, Ferguson is determined to survive”. This followed a campaign rally in the town to save the yard, and news that the then Scottish Executive was awarding contracts, under EU rules, to a Polish company in Gdansk instead of to Ferguson. That company was under investigation for illegal subsidies and using cheap labour from Russia.

Ferguson eventually closed, but is now re-opened – with orders from Caledonian Maritime Assets for two 100-metre ferries. This revival of the last non-naval commercial shipbuilder in Scotland is in no small measure related to the increased confidence engendered by the decisive support for unity. The new company will be named Ferguson Marine Engineering, with the prospect of its 77 restored jobs rising to 300 within three years. Owner Jim McColl criticised government for not countering the severe difficulties such companies have in raising bonds to finance recovery.

The name of the new company is a clue to its potential to diversify – essential when orders for ships are few. The spread of skills would include the ability to build specialist ships for the offshore oil and gas industry, offshore wind farms and seabed holding frames for tidal energy devices.

An increasing market for ships was predicted, with fleets in Europe and further afield reaching the end of their useful life. Although it would be very hard to compete with Korean and Chinese yards for the building of large ships, acquiring the ability to construct 120-metre vessels would be feasible – making the yard one of only three similar companies in Britain.

Diversifying to survive

As drilling in ever deeper waters around Britain proceeds, the need for maritime construction increases. This means work for the diversified activities of shipyards, securing their future and skills.

An example is the just announced Cygnus gas project, a scheme which will add £1.29 billion to the British economy and require over 4,800 skilled jobs during its five-year construction period. This is the result of Britain’s largest gas field discovery in the past 25 years. Scotland and the north east of England will see 19,000 tonnes of offshore infrastructure being built at yards in Fife, Scottish Highlands and Hartlepool.

A prime example of skills diversification is found in the north west of England at the Cammell Laird company. Although it specialises in commercial ship repair, naval refits, shipbuilding and conversion, it is now rapidly expanding in cutting edge engineering services.

Cammells has become a hub for onshore infrastructure for the offshore wind energy industry, the civil nuclear energy sector, petrochemicals and heavy fabrication work. Founded in 1828 on the River Mersey, Cammells now fills 130 acres with four dry docks, large construction halls and workshops.

A north east England example is Pallion Shipyard, set up over 100 years ago on the Wear in Sunderland. Its potential covers ship repair, new build and conversion – and projects for civil engineering, steel fabrication and the offshore oil and gas industry.

A unique facility is found at Invergordon, Britain’s deepest sheltered bay and the site of a famous Navy mutiny, where entire fleets were anchored. Today it is the main facility for oil and gas rig projects – the Invergordon Service Base, operated by the Scottish Cromarty Firth Port Authority.

Invergordon serves as an arrival point for giant rigs destined for service drilling wells at high pressures and temperatures up to 35,000 feet down – in water up to 400 feet deep. In August a new rig arrived having refuelled in Falmouth after a two-month journey from its construction site in Shanghai. It had been transported by a semi-submersible vessel The Black Marlin from the Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding Company. Can we build them here?

The Unite union’s analysis on behalf of its members is a start. Another is the example set by the north west England based Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign (KOFAC) led by trade unions in the shipbuilding industry and its supply chain network of over 1500 companies. British shipbuilding is starting to be rebuilt. It's due for a revival.