No one could say that chlorine is an exciting market to be in. Overall growth is around half a percentage point annually, and most of that is in the Far East. You don't transport chlorine over long distances, so a 50-year-old plant near Blackpool did not have much going for it. On the other hand, chlorine is a vital ingredient in many ICI products such as PVC and the new replacements for the CFCs, used in refrigeration and cleaning. Managers couldn't afford to jeopardise chlorine's supply.
Given the readily available capacity in Runcorn and elsewhere, closing the Hillhouse plant rather than patching it up to meet modern requirements was an obvious option.'But it's the kind of issue you have to think through long and hard,' says Dick Curry, a section manager in the Chlor-Chemicals business group, who ultimately had the job of closing the plant down. 'We looked very hard at the standards and at the economics of bolting on (new apparatus), or tearing it down and building a new plant on the same site. Either course would have entailed very high expenditure on a small proportion of UK production.' But other factors had to be weighed up. 'It's a complex question in an integrated chemical site. We had to examine whether the site as a whole could be sustained without its own chlorine supply.' One big neighbouring user was the big PVC plant, now owned by EVC. Detailed studies showed that the chlorine supplies could feasibly be transported from Runcorn, some 50 miles by road.
Fortunately for relations with the local authorities, the studies also showed that the change would actually reduce the road traffic by several thousand tanker journeys a year because caustic soda, produced with chlorine, would no longer have to be transported away from Hillhouse.
There remained to be studied the effect on the 100 or so staff working the chlorine plant. ICI's 'Security of Employment Statement' sets out what the company can do inside and outside the organisation to resettle redundant staff, and the terms for early retirement.Curry found that ICI could honour its commitment to staff, and the decision to close was announced in late 1992. Closure followed some nine months later, with all staff resettled, either inside ICI or outside.
The site itself is a valuable asset, since it has government clearance under the Control of Major Industrial Accidents and Hazards regulations, and is equipped with its own fire service, medical centre and environmental laboratory, as well as ready supplies of natural gas, water and (probably soon) its own 1750 MW power station. ICI has therefore opened the site up to outside tenants, and manager Danny O'Neill has the role of marketing its virtues worldwide. 'Companies coming here can save up to 40% of their infrastructure costs,' he claims.
One tenant is Victrex, the MBO making PEEK, or polyether ethyl ketone,one of the advanced plastics developed by ICI in recent years. Used in engineering applications, it tolerates high temperatures, wear and chemical attack, but it's a small business unrelated to ICI's other plastics and materials. Dr Peter Rowley, a senior ICI manager, persuaded the board to break with its cultural traditions and give the project its blessing. That was last year, and now the business, with a current turnover of £20 million is growing fast. Its 50 employees all have stock options, and, as Rowley explains, ' we can make much quicker decisions, and we're not in competition for money. But otherwise, the cultural change is less than you might imagine.'.