THE fight to save Portsmouth’s shipbuilding industry stepped up a gear today as city leaders revealed an action plan to safeguard 1,300 BAE Systems jobs.
As the defence giant conducts a review of its shipbuilding division, speculation is rife that BAE will stop building ships in Portsmouth once local workers finish constructing large sections of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers in 2014.
BAE’s chief executive Ian King refused to rule out job losses yesterday after the defence giant posted a seven per cent slide in its full-year profits, along with a 14 per cent drop in annual sales.
But Portsmouth City Council leader Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson and Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock told The News redundancies can be avoided if:
n BAE does the fitting-out work for the first carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth rather than Scotland.
n The project to build a new fleet of navy frigates in Portsmouth is brought forward six months.
n Portsmouth becomes the only place in the UK to service and maintain warships.
BAE, which is leading the UK-wide Aircraft Carrier Alliance, currently plans to fit out HMS Queen Elizabeth in Rosyth once she is launched in 2014. She would then come to Portsmouth in 2016.
But the city leaders will approach ministers and BAE executives next week to argue the warship should come to Portsmouth two years early.
This would fill a two-year gap in Portsmouth’s order book from 2014 which is central to redundancy fears.
The plan would require dredging work to make Portsmouth Harbour deeper and wider for the 65,000-tonne warships to be brought forward by one year to 2013.
The same applies to plans to strengthen the jetties at Portsmouth Naval Base.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson told The News that meetings have been held with shipbuilding union officials in the last few weeks to draw up the plan.
He said: ‘The outcome of the meetings was that we need to try to get the carriers brought down here as soon as possible once they have been floated so the fitting-out work can be done here rather than in Scotland. So what we need to do is see if we can get the dredging work and jetties done as soon as possible.’
The idea is the extra work from outfitting Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales would tide Portsmouth shipbuilders over until construction work begins on a new fleet of navy frigates called the Type 26 Global Combat Ship.
The ships are due to be ordered by the MoD in 2014 but Mr Hancock said Portsmouth jobs could be secured if the deal was brought forward.
He said: ‘It’s a big ask because of the scarcity of resources but we’ve got to see if we can bring it forward.
‘What we ask is to see if it’s possible to bring it forward even by six months to bridge the gap between the carriers and Type 26.’
The third part of the plan is for Portsmouth, where two-thirds of the navy’s ships are based, to become the only place where UK warships are maintained and repaired.
BAE Systems already has 1,700 workers employed in its ship service and maintenance division in Portsmouth – which is separate from the 1,300 workers in the shipbuilding division.
Warships are also currently repaired, refitted and maintained in other yards around the UK such as Devonport in Plymouth and Rosyth.
‘For the long-term future, the things we have to protect is the work in regards to the upkeep of ships,’ said Cllr Vernon-Jackson.
‘The view from meeting with the unions is that we need to get a decision about where ships will be based and maintained in the future.
‘The financial logic is if you look after them all in one place it’s going to be cheaper.’
The ideas will be put before government ministers, top MoD officials and BAE executives from next week onwards in a bid to preserve the city’s 500-year shipbuilding tradition. Cllr Vernon-Jackson said he’s already held talks with senior naval officers about the proposals.
Mr Hancock said: ‘None of this is a certainty. All of this relies on the MoD being able to unlock its tight budget restrictions. But it’s important we start asking the questions. This is something that’s a firm initiative we can work on. What we can’t do is simply throw in the towel and say because there’s no ships on order there’s nothing we can do. We’ve got to try and generate alternatives.
‘All of what we’re saying is feasible. What’s needed is the willingness to give it a crack.’
BAE Systems declined to comment on the proposals, but said no decisions have been made on the future of its shipbuilding operations while it conducts its review.
An MoD spokeswoman said: ‘We work closely with members of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance who keep their build strategy for the Queen Elizabeth Carriers under review.’