All in the same sinking ship: When Barrow's success seemed to seal Swan Hunter's fate, there was no joy, only relief, says Nick Turner

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THE LADS poured out of work as the hooter sounded the end of another day at the shipyard that dominates the skyline and the lives of most people in the town. Within seconds, empty streets around the yard were full of people running to their cars, and hundreds more on their old, rickety bicycles. It is a sight that tourists come miles to photograph and show their friends back home.

The talk on the way home was of the announcement made that day. Hundreds were to lose their jobs at the yard - the town's largest employer by a mile. This is an area with a proud shipbuilding history going back more than century, and many must have been wondering if anyone 'down South' really cared about what was happening to their town.

This was not Tyneside, but Barrow-in-Furness, four days before VSEL won its joint bid with Kvaerner Govan last week to build a Royal Navy helicopter carrier.

The company is to shed another 250 workers, the latest in a long line of redundancy announcements that have caused the workforce at VSEL to drop in three years from 14,000 to 7,500. Worse is to come. Further cuts will leave 6,000 working at the yard. There have also been redundancies at the second-largest firm, Scott's paper mill, which employs 700.

It is hardly surprising, then, that there were no street parties in Barrow when VSEL won the Ministry of Defence order. In the pubs and working men's clubs people raised a pint and said, 'Aye, good news for the yard.'

But at the backs of everybody's minds was the thought that the work would be shared with the Clyde, so will save just 500 VSEL workers from the dole queue. Peanuts.

Perhaps the mood of the town was best captured in an incident the day after the announcement was made. The local paper put bill posters outside newsagents describing the order as a 'jobs jackpot'. One shopkeeper had to remove his poster quickly, after customers began complaining about the upbeat message.

Unemployment in Barrow may still be below the national average at 9.4 per cent, but the numbers on sickness and invalidity benefit have shot up in the past 18 months by more than a quarter to 6,000, and many have signed on at the local college rather than go on the dole.

Barrovians have strong views about the shipyard. It dominates every aspect of their lives. The 300,000sq ft Devonshire Dock Hall, where the Trident submarines are built, towers above everything and everyone. Every street in the Vickerstown area is named after ships built in the yard - Niobe Street, Vengeance Street, Dominion Street - and there is the Sheffield pub, Trident taxis and Invincible Motors, the main car dealers.

Everyone is in agreement that the helicopter carrier order is good news. Barrow's Labour MP, John Hutton, believes that winning the order will be seen as an important morale booster for the town after three terrible years. But he hopes the town's problems will not be forgotten by the Government. 'It is incredibly difficult for our employment situation to register on anyone's scale of interest, but when 2,000 jobs go in the North-east, all hell breaks loose,' he says.

Winning the contract is also an important breakthrough in VSEL's strategy for survival. Barrow has a monopoly in submarine building, but the Navy is said to have too many submarines already and the Trident programme will be completed by 1997. The company has taken its first tentative steps towards diversification into offshore oil and gas rigs, marine technology and power generation, but for the forseeable future VSEL and Barrow are still builders of warships.

That is why returning to surface ships is so important. The company suffered a blow when it failed to win the order for Type 23 frigates, and pessimists began to doubt if surface ships would ever sail out of Barrow into the Irish Sea again.

The 20,000 ton HMS Ocean helicopter carrier will be the first surface ship produced by VSEL since a stretched Type 42 destroyer in 1982. Tony Peak, VSEL's director, who oversaw the company's bid, says: 'Our strategy has always been to re-enter the surface shipbuilding business, so winning this particular contract has really got us back on target. After three years of regular redundancies it is the first bit of good news we have been able to give people here.'

VSEL was always confident of winning the contract if the Government put politics to one side when placing the order. As it turned out, the company's bid was pounds 50m to pounds 70m cheaper than Swan Hunter's price, prompting allegations - hotly denied - that VSEL used its huge cash reserves to bid below the true cost.

Certainly, while Swan Hunter had creditors knocking at the door, VSEL could afford a lower profit margin, especially as the success of the Trident programme has allowed it to accumulate pounds 250m in spare cash.

Then there is VSEL's partnership with Kvaerner Govan, which will produce the hull for VSEL to begin work on in 1996. The Clydeside yard has undergone a multi-million pound modernisation, which helped VSEL to cut costs.

Like many in Barrow, Mr Peak is quick to point out that, while the closure of Swan Hunter would mean the loss of 2,000 jobs, VSEL has already lost about 7,000 and will have to lose more before things improve again. But he still feels sympathy for Swan Hunter. 'We were delighted to win, but that was soon tinged with sadness at the plight of Swan Hunter. We don't want to appear like we are saying: 'Wayhey, lads, we cut them off at the knees.' It is sad to see a facility like that go and we knew the people there, all of them.'

Winning the helicopter carrier will allow VSEL to retain and develop its design team and prepare to win future orders. Opportunities on the horizon are likely to be the next batch of Type 23 frigates, and the replacements for the Navy's assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

Alan Forsyth, chairman of the local development agency, Furness Enterprise, says the order will provide a psychological boost to the area: 'The town needed a fillip and if firms can see the Government making a commitment to the area, it makes life easier for us.'

There cannot be many jobs harder than Mr Forsyth's: persuading firms to relocate to Barrow, 40 miles west of the M6 along the long and winding road known as the 'longest cul-de-sac in Britain', when there are no financial incentives such as an enterprise zone or assisted area status.

Millions of pounds have been spent preparing spanking new factory units that remain empty. In two years one firm has relocated to Barrow. Others come to look. They hear about the town's highly skilled workforce and its proximity to the Lake District, but leave, saying: 'Perhaps if you get assisted area status we'll come back.'

Until those companies do come back or VSEL nets a bigger order there is little to temper the cynicism of Barrow's unemployed.

Darren Wells thought he had a job for life with VSEL until they did the unthinkable and ended their apprenticeship scheme. Despite four years' training he has been unable to get a job. 'The order is a good thing for the people still working in the yard, but it's not much good for people like me,' he says.

Keith Mallinson lost his job at VSEL five months ago. How did he react to last week's news? 'The order may have saved 500 jobs, but there will still be another 1,000 or more going out the gate. I don't think the rest of the country really knows where Barrow is or what VSEL does, never mind cares about what's happening to the town.'

The writer is political correspondent of the 'North West Evening Mail'.

(Photograph omitted)

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