Time ebbs away for rescue of Swan Hunter: Shipbuilding on the Tyne now seems to be doomed. Malcolm Pithers reports

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The Independent Online
SWAN HUNTER, once one of the most famous names in world shipbuilding, is almost certainly going to close down, ending generations of shipbuilding on the Tyne.

Throughout a fraught day at the yard in Wallsend, union leaders and the official receivers, Price Waterhouse, held discussions yesterday about the collapse of the bid for the yard from the French company, Soffia/CMN.

Union leaders eventually admitted they were staring 'disaster in the face', and unless the Government stepped in to help them, shipbuilding on Tyneside was doomed.

Gordon Horsfield, one of the team of receivers, also made it clear there now appeared to be no lifeline left for the 650 men remaining at the yard. He said: 'I think we are in the position where we are at the end of the line in terms of buyers for the business as a going concern. If they do not emerge . . . there will be no concern.'

He said that although there were other interested parties in the background, they had not 'turned themselves into offers, clearly backed by funds'. He could only treat them with 'considerable caution'.

The yard is expected to shut down in November, and the workforce expects to be told by the end of the week when the run-down will begin. Swan Hunter is completing its final warship, HMS Richmond, and unless an eleventh hour bid is forthcoming, all work will cease when the contract has been finished.

CMN announced on Monday that it was abandoning its rescue bid, amounting to dollars 5m ( pounds 3m), for the shipyard. The break-up value of the yard has been estimated at around dollars 7.5m and the shortfall between this figure and the CMN bid proved too great. It also required a transfer of a frigate contract, which the Government was not prepared to sanction.

Yesterday, the receivers said they had been given a further revised offer from CMN, but only for the dry dock at the yard and what is known as the intellectual property rights from Swan Hunter. They have also agreed to commission a design project which will provide employment for the yard's design team until the end of the month.

The run-down at Swan Hunter has meant a rapid decline in the workforce from 2,200 when the receivers were called in in May last year, to the present figure of 650. Swan's dates back to 1860 when the Neptune shipyard was founded at Low Walker on the Tyne. In all some 1,700 vessels have been built there, including Cunard's famous liner, the Mauretania.

It seems as if the yard's destiny will be for companies to pick over some of its assets. Mr Horsfield said he expected piecemeal sales to take place, and at least two companies had expressed an interest in buying parts of the yard.

He added: 'We received a revised offer from CMN. Inevitably this reflected their disappointment at the difficulties they were having securing a transfer of the frigate contract and it was not an offer, in the terms it was couched or at the level at which it stood, which we felt in any sense able to accept.'

Union leaders made a final appeal for the Government to come forward with orders. Tommy Brennan, the regional organiser for the GMB general union at Swan Hunter, said it was a 'very small investment' for the Government to preserve shipbuilding on the Tyne.

(Photograph omitted)