Manchester Ship Canal's new role: building ships

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The Independent Online

What it lacks in the deafening enterprise of traditional dockside metal-bashing, a small repair yard has made up for in imagination by bringing shipbuilding back to the Manchester Ship Canal after a gap of more than 80 years.

The canal's last shipbuilders worked between 1900 and 1914 for the select group of large lines enticed to the area by the Ship Canal Company as it tried to whip up oceangoing traffic. The latest output, by contrast, comes from Lengthline, a ship-repair company employing just 50 people at Salford Docks. In their heyday, in 1950, the docks employed almost 2,500 people for repair work and were looking to recruit more.

Lengthline has already dispatched a trawler for a Scottish shrimp fishing crew by road but its next two vessels will be of even of more symbolic importance as they are to be floated in the canal and sailed across the Irish Sea for their purchasers. The company has further contracts for an aluminium catamaran, a 200-tonne dredger and two cargo vessels - the largest of which is 1,500 tonnes.

Manchester - which famously stole trade from Liverpool by creating the inland port which linked the city to the sea in 1894 - is again aping its rival by diversifying out of ship repair into construction. The Camell Laird yard, where HMS Unicorn was the last vessel built seven years ago, has moved into leasing and has asked the Government to cancel restrictions on merchant shipbuilding at the yard so it can bid for contracts to build cruise vessels.

The city's shipbuilding heritage is a shadow of Liverpool's, however, and its new products owe a debt to the flatpack age. A Dutch prefabrication company makes laser-cut panels, which Lengthline assembles. "This speeds up the process, keeps costs down and makes the yard more competitive," the latter's chairman, Peter Lye, said.

Lengthline was set up as a co-operative 12 years ago after the Manchester Dry Dock Co went into receivership, and it began building boats when the repair market flattened out.

The yard is hardly a major employer - three apprentices have joined on the back of the new contracts and it is hoped a further 10 or even 20 may be recruited. But even this number could not have been anticipated when the larger container ships and the decline of traditional industries seemed to spell doom for the docks from the Seventies.

Mr Lye is one of 20 Lengthline men who worked for the Dry Dock Co until it crashed. He says the industry demarcations have now gone. "We go for any stuff as long as we can build it," he said. His company proved the point last year by constructing the landmark Lowry Bridge, which spans the canal at Salford.