Britain’s last few shipbuilders steer a course through the fiscal storm

The glory days of the great shipyards are gone, and now defence cuts threaten the naval work supporting those that survive. But there may still be still signs of hope

Glasgow’s Riverside Museum is as much a memorial as a celebration of the city’s shipbuilding tradition. Its jagged steel frame, by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, echoes the triumphs of industrial design that have floated down the Clyde over the centuries, as well as the construction sheds that once stood on the site. Inside, it displays scale models of the famous ships built on the river – HMS Hood, the Lusitania, the QE2 – and the now antiquated tools involved.

The 63-year-old artist Tom McKendrick worked nearby at Clydebank’s John Brown & Co yard, where he helped build the QE2 – the last great ship of that era. He doesn’t sentimentalise an industry that has been vastly diminished since he left it in 1969, two years after the QE2 launched. “It was a brutal, hostile, bitter and cold environment. It was dirty, there was asbestos everywhere. You saw things you maybe shouldn’t have seen. I think I saw my first death in the yards when I was 15.”

But, says McKendrick, there was incredible camaraderie and a sense of community whose loss rules out a sustained revival of the industry in Scotland. “People say it would be great if they brought shipbuilding back, but it can’t happen. It depended on this massive turnover of apprentices, these skills being passed on father to son, father to son,” says McKendrick, who worked from the age of 15 to 21 as a loftsman – a job that entailed drawing full-scale templates of designs and passing them to the steel platers in the workshop below.

His art remains heavily influenced by his work in the yards. “All you need is a break in a generation and it is lost. I could build a boat tomorrow, but only because all those years ago I was trained in the art of shipbuilding.”

Talk of the UK’s industrial transformation often focuses on the bygone days of shipbuilding. So the Clyde is a fitting backdrop to any discussion of how to boost manufacturing’s contribution to the economy beyond 10% of GDP. According to consultancy IHS, 134 vessels – 1.47m gross tons of shipping – were produced in the UK in 1976. But competition from Japan, South Korea and now China has taken its toll, with the industry producing just four ships in 2011.

The head of the UK’s Society of Maritime Industries argues that focusing on the past is obscuring the achievements of the present. A thriving industry exists, says John Murray, referring to companies that work on a range of products from tsunami detection systems to seabed mapping. “The maritime industry is considerably more diverse than it was 50 years ago. It is much more on a par with what the aerospace sector has been doing.” According to the UK Marine Industries Alliance, the wider sector employs nearly 90,000 people with a turnover of nearly £10bn.

However, another British shipbuilding hub is under threat in a development that will trigger more soul-searching. In Portsmouth, one of the industry’s last major outposts faces an uncertain future – because UK shipbuilding’s largest remaining customer is the cash-strapped taxpayer.

Portsmouth Naval Base is rich in industrial heritage, having built the Mary Rose and HMS Dreadnought, while another famous product, HMS Victory, stands on display in one corner of the base next to modern destroyers. At the other end of the base, that historic production line was still going last month, when a 6,000-tonne front section of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth emerged from the sheds to be towed to Rosyth in Scotland for assembly.

As a chunk of one carrier leaves the yard, work has started on a block for its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales. But once that task is complete, it could be the end for 500 years of shipbuilding at Portsmouth. BAE Systems, which leases the site from the Royal Navy, is reviewing its shipbuilding and ship maintenance arm, and Portsmouth is reportedly under threat. If the operation is shut down, around 1,300 jobs will be at risk.

Observing the work on the latest block, Paul Bowsher, the head of the carrier project at Portsmouth, notes ruefully that the technological achievements of the carrier programme are not widely understood. “Shipbuilding is a traditional industry but it is not in the dark ages,” he says, because it now eschews the riskier practices that were common in McKendrick’s day. Bowsher adds: “There are lots of traditional skills that we have and that we nurture in order to maintain them – steelwork, welding – but there are also modern skills like computer design.”

But it is not lack of public appreciation that threatens Portsmouth: it is lack of public funds. The £37bn defence budget will be reduced by 8% by 2014, which has already led to 2,000 job cuts at BAE’s aerospace operations. Unions fear that work for the forthcoming Type 26 global combat ship, which is for the Royal Navy but will also target export markets, will go to BAE sites on the Clyde in Govan and Scotstoun – leaving Portsmouth with no orders. That would leave it as a services hub, overhauling and maintaining the aircraft carriers that will be partly built there.

Standing next to a wooden model of the site, BAE’s director of naval base services, Mal Lewis, pointedly compares the manufacturing sheds with the rest of BAE’s operations in Portsmouth, from maintenance facilities to supply stores. “People forget that we run a services business here. If you look at the layout of the site, the 310 acres are predominantly services-related.”

That emphasis on services is echoed by other manufacturing executives, who warn of excessive focus on making things. For instance, Rolls-Royce, a maker of world-class aircraft engines, generates half of its revenues from servicing and maintaining its products. The minister of state for business and enterprise, Mark Prisk, concurs; speaking at a recent maritime industry event, he warned against “getting too misty-eyed about assembly”.

A degree of wistfulness remains, however. Shipbuilding grandees believe there is still room for a more specialised industry, even if chances were missed three decades ago when McKendrick’s generation was still primed for such work. Sir John Parker, the former chief executive of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipbuilder, believes the industry had an opportunity for rebirth when he ran the company in the 1980s.

But he does not hold out hope for a dramatic revival either. “We are past the point … where we could have a critical-mass industry in shipbuilding. But we have specialised niches, particularly in defence and some sophisticated ships.”

One personal regret, he adds, is that it could have been different. “One of my big industrial disappointments or even failures is that I failed to persuade the government of the day that there was a big future in building cruise ships. Whoever used run-of-the-mill bulk carriers or tankers drifted to the lowest-cost country. So how you survived in higher-cost countries was more sophisticated ships like cruise ships. I saw that there was going to be a lot of growth in cruise ship building so we demonstrated that this was a real growth industry. And nearly 25 years on, those forecasts would have underestimated the demand. We had all the skills and infrastructure that we needed.”

The focus of the industry now is ensuring that no more chances are missed. But ambitions are modest. Last month saw a gathering of maritime executives at Lloyd’s Register (LR) in central London, in a wood-panelled room that reminded attendees of how much shipbuilding was part of the manufacturing establishment. LR is still a knowledgeable player, assisting companies in the design, building and operation of ships.

Richard Sadler, LR’s chief executive, says: “We have got a fantastic maritime tradition. But the days that you would expect to see a [major] shipbuilding industry in the UK have probably gone, to be honest.”

He cites the Mars project, which will see Royal Navy tankers built – jarringly – by Daewoo in South Korea. “That’s a good example of where we have decided not to construct these ships in the UK but they are designed by us, constructed in Korea and then operated in the UK. That plays to our strengths and that is probably the model of the future.”

Sadler adds that superyachts are also an opportunity for UK manufacturers, as shown by the likes of Pendennis in Cornwall. “Some of the technologies going into the megayachts now are just fabulous.”

Evidence of that more specialised industry exists in Glasgow. Across the water from the museum, in Govan, is a 150-year-old yard owned by BAE, which recently completed an 8,000-tonne mid-section for HMS Queen Elizabeth. The yard is expected to survive, along with nearby Scotstoun and 3,000 jobs. So McKendrick’s art and the museum’s lightning-bolt arches won’t be the only trace of the past.

Back in Clydebank, McKendrick talks of one influence on his sculptural work. He describes the peculiar signatures that would cover newly completed ships, with every rivet and steel plate marked by the individual colour code of the worker who completed it: “I love the idea that there are things at the bottom of the ocean, or still in the seas, that beneath the layers of paint still have this beautiful calligraphy lying there.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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