French group plays down revised Swan rescue bid: Large MoD orders a prerequisite for yard takeover

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HOPES of saving Swan Hunter continued to fade yesterday as the French group that planned to buy the Tyneside yard played down speculation it would mount a revised rescue bid.

Iskander Safa, head of Soffia, said he would continue discussions with the shipbuilder's receivers, but would take over the yard only if the Ministry of Defence gave it new large orders.

On Tuesday, the MoD virtually doomed Swan Hunter to closure when it awarded a vital pounds 40m refit order to the Rosyth shipyard in Scotland. Soffia, owner of the Cherbourg boatbuilder Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie, had agreed to buy Swan Hunter if the contract went to Tyneside.

A pounds 6m MoD order for Swan Hunter to refit a smaller vessel, RFA Olwen, was not enough, Mr Safa said. 'We are looking for up to two years' work before we are prepared to take on the yard. If the MoD can come up with something better, we will be interested.

'We hope we can find another solution, but this will involve a greater commitment by all the parties involved, including Lloyds Bank, as the principal receiver, and the workforce.' He said there was no work at his company's French shipyard that could be transferred. A spokeswoman for Price Waterhouse, the receiver, said they would continue discussions with Mr Safa, but a solution was needed urgently.

The MoD has stipulated that if Swan Hunter is to get the Olwen contract, the yard must find an owner by 1 August. The receiver is expected to close Swan Hunter in November when existing work runs out. About 650 workers, plus 250 temporarily laid-off pending new orders, would then lose their jobs.

The MoD said there are always refit or shipbuilding orders in the pipeline, but there was nothing imminent that would be given to Swan Hunter. 'But we are always willing to talk to CMN,' a spokesman said.

Yesterday Dick Gonsalez, chairman of the CSEU shipbuilding union, flew to Paris for talks with Mr Safa. He said they were 'very positive with regard to the way forward'. Union representatives are due to meet Tony Baldry, Environment Minister with responsibilities for Tyne and Wear, on Friday.

Mr Safa believes shipbuilding is destined for a further shake-up with more cross-border co-operation, hence a link between CMN and Swan Hunter. He also saw the tie as providing political balance, given that some international orders are often placed with France or Britain for diplomatic reasons.

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