After 150 years, Dunlop is forced to give its wellington works the boot

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Though the sun bathed its brickwork, the management at the most famous old factory in Peter Kilfoyle's Liverpool constituency was sharing the MP's gloomy countenance.

The Dunlop Hevea factory makes wellington boots so dry weather rarely gets a warm reception. "We must be the only people who are not smiling when the sun shines," said the managing director, Johan de Jong.

His humour hid a local tragedy of considerable proportions. After 150 years of manufacturing, the Dutch owner of the factory - which employed 2,000 people 30 years ago - is almost certain to close it within a month.

Whatever the weather, manufacturing has become untenable here, despite exhaustive production efficiencies, lay-offs, £2m in investment and the fierce pursuit of niche markets. With the Dunlop warehousebursting with 300,000 pairs of unsold wellingtons, production has been suspended and the workforce sent home on full pay. They are facing a grim future - unemployment in parts of Liverpool is 10 per cent.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Kilfoyle, the MP for Walton, met the plant's management. He has pledged to do what he can, which may not be much.

The timing of the trouble has been lost on no one. A letter from the Dutch notifying Mr Kilfoyle of the plant'spredicament was sent to Westminster last weekend, arriving less than 36 hours before he told the Government in the Commons to abandon "strident moralising" to the unemployed. There were "areas with no jobs", Mr Kilfoyle said, adding that people in areas such as Walton were chasing "non-existent jobs".

Mr de Jong says his superiors in the Netherlands keep asking him why his plant is struggling while "they read about the booming British economy in the newspapers". He said: "I tell them that things may be overheating in the City but not up here." The pound, 30 per cent stronger than in January 1997 when the plant was bought, has been the principal architect of Dunlop's doom; Italian boots can sell for 50p less than it costs to make a Walton wellington. "We've always managed in the UK, with our brand name, to charge a 50p or £1 premium," he said. "When it gets to £2.50 they'll say, 'Enough is enough'."

A Fifties aerial photograph in Mr de Jong's office corridor captures the past of a footwear operation which, in 1857, gave the world its first plimsolls. Until 1981, rubber was produced here but as production lines in training shoes were continuously cut, the factory moved to a few small buildings on the perimeter of the old site.

Mr Kilfoyle, who has passed Dunlop's letter to Gordon Brown, was making no promises yesterday. "I see what little traditional manufacturing employment there is left in this area and I am concerned about its erosion. This is the last remains of what was a very big plant. Not everyone can work in the service sector."

Comments