Swan yard deal raises hope of jobs

JOHN WILLCOCK

Financial Correspondent

Unions and receivers were jubilant last night at the 11th-hour rescue of the Swan Hunter shipyard by Hartlepool-based THC Group, which could create up to 600 jobs.

The sale forestalls an auction of the Wallsend yard on the Tyne and its remaining shipbuilding equipment scheduled for next week. Viewing for the 9,000 lots was due on Friday.

Henry Butcher & Co, auctioneers, expected to obtain at least pounds 3m for the equipment alone. Although Price Waterhouse, the receivers, refused to name the sale price, observers expect it is likely to be around the pounds 7.5m PW named as a minimum last year.

THC put in a bid last November which the receivers rejected, after a number of other proposed bids had fallen through. THC put its latest offer in just 12 days ago, and the speed of the deal means that the business plan is still at a preliminary stage.

Unions hope that up to 600 jobs will be created by new orders for oil production platorms for the North Sea. Such floating platforms use new technology that replaces the need for tall, stationary platforms previously in use.

THC aims to become the market leader and hopes for orders of up to 24 vessels at a cost of pounds 100m-pounds 150m each.

Glen Wilson, commercial manager at THC, said: "This current investment represents a commitment to our continued development in this industry. The management are confident that with the co-operation and support of the local community and the various regional and national agencies concerned with industrial development, a hugely successful operation will emerge."

While some reports yesterday put the potential for new jobs at 1,000, the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation put it "in the hundreds, depending on how the yard wins orders".

Alistair Balls, TWDC's chief executive, said it had contributed pounds 500,000 towards the capital costs of the project and was helping the yard to prepare an application to the Department of Trade and Industry for regional selective assistance.

Mr Balls said: "This is good news for Tyneside. THC has an excellent track record and is one of Europe's leading companies in the manufacture of offshore modules and equipment."

It is not clear whether the Swan Hunter name will survive. THC already has 500 employees building offshore vessels at its Hartlepool, Cleveland, base.

Eddie Darke, the former union convener and Swan campaigner, said: "This is brilliant news. I understand there will be as many as 600 jobs created at peak periods. We are long overdue something to lift the spirits of the people on North Tyneside."

Swan Hunter was put into receivership in May 1993 after a Ministry of Defence order for a helicopter carrier fell through. Analysts said it was a victim of the ending of the Cold War, which left the UK with the capacity to support only two naval shipyards, Yarrow, owned by GEC, and Barrow-in-Furness, owned by VSEL.

Swan Hunter has built more than 1,600 ships since it was founded in the 1830s, including the liner, the Mauritania. Its last ship, HMS Richmond, was delivered to the Royal Navy before Christmas. At one point the yard employed more than 3,000, and the 2,200 remaining were quickly whittled down after the receivership to just 39 this spring.

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