Last of the great shipyards may die

Forty years on: The once-thriving heartland of British shipbuilding has sunk into a windswept symbol of a lost age
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WORKERS AT Britain's biggest merchant shipbuilding yard put their fate in the hands of politicians yesterday after the Norwegian firm Kvaerner announced it was abandoning the Upper Clyde. Altogether some 5,000 jobs are at risk across Britain with the conglomerate's decision to sell off its loss-making shipbuilding and engineering operations.

A chapter of history is stuttering to a close on the Clyde. When the Crystal Ocean, an oil support vessel, goes downKvaerner's Govan slipway on Friday, the 1,200 workforce will survey a sorry place.

Ninety-day redundancy notices have been issued. An icebreaker has still to be finished and the company has some steel fabricating work, but it will not last beyond the summer. But the alternative of supermarket jobs or working in call centres is viewed with disdain by the Clydesiders. "Shipbuilding is part of me," said John Brown, a welder for 17 years who followed his father into the yard. "This is a hard and dangerous physical job and we don't live very long. But you don't build an economy stacking shelves at Tesco or answering the phone."

Talk of outright closure of such a symbolic yard in the middle of the Scottish election campaign will be embarrassing for Labour. Govan, the constituency where the shipyard lies, is the most volatile of the Glasgow electoral areas and a prime target for the Scottish National Party. Govan's Labour MP, Mohammed Sarwar, was an early caller at the yard yesterday.

The workers have vowed to keep the yard open, putting their trust in a taskforce set up by Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the Scottish Industry minister, who started out as a 14-year-old apprentice in a neighbouring yard. The taskforce is headed by Sir Gavin Laird, the former leader of the shipbuilding and engineering workers whose cousin works at the yard. "He say's he's going to knock the shit out me if I don't get a decent solution," Sir Gavin confided.

Some pounds 90m in taxpayer subsidy has gone into the yard since Kvaerner took it over in 1989. European yards struggle against over-capacity in the industry and competition from the Far East.

Lord Macdonald said the taskforce would explore every option to find a buyer. The yard's future is heavily dependent on a bid to build six ferries for the Ministry of Defence. If the consortium of which Kvaerner is a part wins the pounds 240m contract, the yard becomes a much more attractive buy. However, Lord Macdonald refused to make any commitment on awarding the work to Govan. It is the only UK yard in the running but the Government is hamstrung by European competition rules.

The SNP called for an immediate placing of the MoD order to make the yard more attractive to buyers. Nicola Sturgeon, the party's candidate for Govan in the 6 May elections, said: "This is a spoke in the wheel of Labour's faltering good news machine."

Jamie Webster, the union convenor, said there was "no despondency whatsoever". So long as fabrication work can be found to tide the yard through to September, the workforce was hopeful of winning the ferries order. "We have had 90-day notices before this and come through," he said.

Kvaerner's other operation on the Clyde, the former John Brown yard, where the liners Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth II were built, is much more likely to attract a buyer. With a workforce of some 700, it has long since switched to making turbines and has a healthy order book. Also for sale are the company's bridge building operation in Darlington, employing 600 people, and its Davy Roll operations in Gateshead and Sheffield, together employing 300 people. Under "review" are oil and gas operations in Aberdeen and London, with a total of 1,600 employees, and fabrication yards in Fife and Teesside which employ around 300 and 900 workers respectively.

In Govan's giant hangers and around the Crystal OceanAlexander Nicol, a plater/fabricator, said the present crisis was the worst he had seen in 23 years at the yard. "The only market outside here is for short-term contract work, travelling around the country or abroad," he said.

Mr Brown, who acts as the welders' shop steward, is determined it will not end that way. "We have to use the election to our advantage and put pressure on politicians," he said. "At the end of the day, they will decide whether we survive or not."