Sunderland makes light of last order

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY WAS one of Sunderland's saddest but the council tried to make the best of it. In a room at Sunderland FC's Stadium of Light, councillors brightly announced that they had found a new "Arc of Opportunity" and would be setting up a task force to convert it into money and jobs.

The Arc is a parcel of land they want to develop on the south bank of the Wear near the city centre. It was a brave effort but everyone's mind was on the Vaux brewery, which shut after 160 years, with the loss of 440 jobs. It is half a mile from the Grove Coles crane yard, which shut 18 months ago, taking 800 jobs. Both plants are on the Arc, giant tombstones in an industrial graveyard.

Though the end came in the brewery yard yesterday afternoon, it had been a lingering death. Packaging stopped three weeks ago; deliveries a fortnight ago and since then employees of the brewery and its 159-year-old sister, Ward's in Sheffield (which also closed yesterday), had been tidying up. As they left, staff clutched bottles of the last beer off the lines. They brewed it for themselves and called it "Time, Gentlemen, Please!"

This isn't just an all-too- familiar story of manufacturing demise, though. Vaux has been linked to one family, the Nicholsons, for five generations, and their philanthropic ways, which inextricably bound the plant to Sunderland's people, will be missed as much as anything.

The money men did for the Nicholson way, though. When Vaux's owner, the Swallow group, wanted to sell, its advisers told it to reject a pounds 70m bid by a buy-out team led by the Vaux MD, Frank Nicholson."We were caught on the altar of shareholder value," he said. "The City is a cold, cold place." He will now resign his place on the City of Sunderland Forum and the Training and Enterprise Council. "I feel I have lost my constituency."

No task force or grant can buy back a Frank Nicholson but Sunderland is nothing if not opportunistic, proving it at its National Glass Centre. Glass is not the sexiest subject but the museum gets 97,500 visitors a year. Advanced manufacturing grows as fast here as anywhere in the UK, says the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the area also does call- centres in a big way. The Doxford International Park houses three and employs 5,000.

An immediate cash grant of pounds 140,000 is allocated to help Vaux employees to find work and though councillors admits it's a drop in the ocean, they believe their task force can lever in millions more.

There's also talk of a Vaux room in Sunderland's museum. Life will go on.