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THE sad and, in Unite’s view, unnecessary closure of the Appledore shipyard on March 15 after 164 years of existence, raises important questions about how seriously the government takes the future of shipbuilding in Britain and, more generally, the absence of the much-vaunted industrial strategy.
On a human level, the loss of the final skilled 200 jobs at the yard on the River Torridge pierces the heart of this North Devon community. I feel that pain acutely as I worked at the yard for nearly 20 years before becoming a Unite official.
The emotional devastation by the closure decision by Babcock International is compounded by the hard economic fact that the area has some of the lowest weekly earnings in the whole of Britain, so the opportunities for decently paid work to replace the jobs, which have been lost, are scarce
It is a crying shame that the Appledore workers, their families and the local community have been sacrificed on the altar of a complacent Tory government which is ideologically as keen as mustard to allow foreign companies to gobble up contracts for the auxiliary ships that the Royal Navy so desperately needs.
The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) said: “We lay the blame for the closure at the door of the UK government and will continue to fight for a national shipbuilding strategy that works for the industry and shipbuilding communities across the UK.”
The level of active ministerial disinterest in Appledore was sadly mirrored by the attitude of the local MP Sir Geoffrey Cox who told me that the Conservative Party would have to find a new MP for the Torridge and West Devon seat if the shipyard closed.
A couple of weeks later Sir Geoffrey was made Attorney General and took on a new role as the pantomime dame of Brexit politics — I never heard back from him on what he was going to do to save Appledore.
Sir Geoffrey had a majority of more than 20,000 at the 2017 general election and the question has to be asked if those Tory voters are happy with his inertia over Appledore, especially as the Tory Party has always strongly played the “defence of the nation” card.
More than 350 vessels — naval ships, patrol boats, dredgers and super yachts — have been built with skill and dedication at Appledore since 1855. Now all that industrial heritage and skills base have been tossed into the dustbin of history.
It is a national tragedy that cruelly exposes the government’s threadbare shipbuilding strategy. Unite repeatedly warned the government’s continual lack of commitment to building ships for the Royal Navy threatened “to shipwreck” the future of Appledore. Our warnings went unheeded.
However, having expressed righteous anger, what should now happen to retrieve the situation, even though it is five minutes past midnight.
What is required is a twin-pronged strategy; firstly, to resurrect the Appledore yard and then a complete rethink of the government’s strategy over the future of Britain’s once-proud shipbuilding tradition which still employs an estimated nearly 32,000 workers directly and a further 20,000 in the supply chain.
Appledore is now mothballed with a small maintenance team — the yard still exists and its workforce is still there, although many are now travelling on a four-hour round trip to work in Devonport.
Ministers could direct work towards Appledore — there is talk about attempting to get the new Isles of Scilly ferry built at the yard.
If the government can earmark large — and seemingly endless — chunks of taxpayers’ money to appease the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its support over the government’s Brexit stance, then a fraction of that sum could kick-start work at Appledore, once more. The old adage “where’s there a will, there is a way” still stands true.
More broadly, the future of British shipbuilding, which has been in long-term decline, hangs by a delicate thread. According to Dutch research, by 2016 Britain’s global market share for commercial orders had fallen to 0.4 per cent, compared with about 50 per cent 70 years ago.
This is what makes the government’s rigid obsession in putting out to international tender the contracts for the Royal Navy’s new fleet solid support vessels so short-sighted and illogical.
This has drawn ire from the commons defence select committee that has quizzed the Ministry of Defence as to why it has not classified such auxiliary craft as warships, which could have navigated around EU laws preventing protectionism.
But at the heart of modern Conservatism is an anti-business, therefore, anti- jobs philosophy, epitomised by the “f**k business” jibe by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
This shallow attitude needs to change. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson should spend less time provoking China by threatening to send the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea and, instead, strain every sinew in safeguarding shipbuilding at British yards.
As the spring sunshine fades over Appledore, the message is clear — is Appledore another milestone in the decline of British shipbuilding, or the moment when government decides now is the time for positive action, involving trade unions and local communities, to fashion a shipbuilding blueprint for the future?
Heathcliffe Pettifer is a regional officer for Unite
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