UK: Plymouth's dockyard blues. (1 of 2)

UK: Plymouth's dockyard blues. (1 of 2) - Plymouth is under threat once again. This time, Malcolm Wheatley reports, it comes from our own armed forces.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Plymouth is under threat once again. This time, Malcolm Wheatley reports, it comes from our own armed forces.

Fleets were assembling in Plymouth Sound as far back as 1297, and every schoolchild knows that it was from Plymouth that Sir Francis Drake sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada - after concluding a bowls engagement.

The visitor is often surprised by the city's modern appearance. Should there not be something, well, OLD looking? There was - until the Luftwaffe concentrated on removing as much of the city as possible and so presented the city's post-war planners with a blank sheet of paper on which to sketch their vision of urban paradise.

Plymouth remains vulnerable - to our own armed forces today. Its economy is still highly dependent on defence and faces a new era of defence cutbacks and peace dividends.

Economist Dr Paul Bishop of Plymouth Business School acknowledges the city's exposure. In 1986 he calculated that over one quarter of the city's employment was directly defence related - an astonishing proportion for a city of 250,000 people. Predictably the flavour is mostly naval. Apart from the naval base and Devonport dockyard, there is also the Royal Marine barracks and a large naval college.

Overall it has been estimated that closing everything down would take about £2 billion from the local economy. Concern about the current round of defence cuts, though, revolves chiefly around the dockyard, which celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. The largest marine engineering facility of its type in western Europe, it occupies a 300-acre site stretching for three miles along the River Tamar. It is the city's biggest single employer, and until recently accounted for over half of its manufacturing jobs. Formerly run by the Civil Service, its management was contracted out to the private sector following the defence shake-ups of the mid-1980s. Devonport Management Ltd (DML) - a consortium put together by BICC, The Weir Group and Brown and Root - took over the running of the yard in April 1987 with the remit of making it more efficient. Still only four years into its seven-year contract, the company estimates that its cost-cutting programme has already saved the taxpayer £112 million.

Local MP Alan Clark is also the Government minister responsible for defence procurement. He is in no doubt that there was plenty of scope for getting rid of people. "There WERE considerable extravagances and overlaps in the old structure of the dockyard labour force. When it was a low-wage economy, the Admiralty could afford that, but the skill of the unions in getting better terms and conditions for their members has meant that you can't run it in the old extravagant style, having men just hanging around and being paid just in case they were needed."

And DML has indeed been effective in reducing the numbers of men "just hanging around" - or at least hanging around at the company's expense, rather than the Department of Social Security's. Inheriting a workforce of over 11,000 in April 1987, the latest redundancies in March of this year have now cut it to 5,400 and it is widely expected to reduce further as a result of the Ministry of Defence's current Options for Change review.

Exactly how much further remains to be seen. Options for Change effectively recognises that the days of stretching the defence budget across multiple naval facilities are over. One option for change is to close the dockyard. This is thought to be unlikely, and widely publicised leaks from the MoD have predicted the closure of Scotland's Rosyth dockyard instead, although DML itself has argued that the Navy's nuclear submarine refuelling requirements needs both dockyards. Nevertheless, some people ARE braced for "the nightmare scenario".

The past few years have certainly left many of the dockyard's remaining employees despondent. In the words of one senior manager: "It's not a happy place to work at all. Morale is very low at all levels. The original core naval programme has all but disappeared, and the commercial work has been slow to arrive. We have the largest naval yard in Europe building boats for Chay Blyth."

A slightly jaundiced view, perhaps. The yard still manages to pull in around £250 million a year from the MoD for a variety of repair, refit and upgrade work. And Chay Blyth's boats are not exactly small beer either: 11 identical, 72-ft, steel-hulled yachts for a 1992 round-the-world race designed to test skills in seamanship rather than yacht design. Nor is all the commercial work nautical: in April the yard won a three-year, £15 million contract from British Rail for diesel engine refurbishment.

But many employees are pessimistic about the yard's long-term future, or at least its future in its present form, and have been voting with their feet. Most of the job losses from the yard have in fact been through voluntary redundancies. As one recent volunteer puts it: "The terms ARE attractive - especially to people who have been there a long time. Very few people haven't thought seriously about it. It's only the fear of what lies outside the dockyard walls that stops more people from going."

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