Portsmouth is to get its own minister charged with dealing with the fall-out from the planned closure of the city’s shipbuilding yard and the loss of more than 900 jobs.
Conservative MP Michael Fallon is set to be unveiled as the Minister for Portsmouth in the government’s first response to help the city since defence giant BAE Systems announced in November it would be moving all its shipbuilding duties to Scotland.
Days after that announcement, The News published an open letter – signed by city leaders – to Prime Minister David Cameron with a list of demands, which included appointing a named minister to deal with the issue.
It’s now hoped Mr Fallon, the MP for Sevenoaks in Kent, will be instrumental in helping to save Portsmouth’s shipyard since the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which he works for, co-ordinates meetings of the task force which has been set up in the city to address the situation.
The task force is made up of city leaders, representatives from BAE Systems, the Royal Navy and the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership.
It’s hoped Mr Fallon will get involved in the meetings, held fortnightly at the office of David Williams, chief executive of Portsmouth City Council, and send reports back directly to the Prime Minister as well as business secretary Vince Cable and defence secretary Philip Hammond in the hope changes will be made.
Mr Fallon also specialises in regeneration, business enterprise skills, and economic development and Cllr Donna Jones, Conservative group leader for Portsmouth City Council and task force member, said he could become instrumental in Portsmouth’s City Deal.
As reported, the deal has unlocked former MoD land around Tipner for redevelopment. Cllr Jones said the move was a huge success and was a key part of what city leaders and The News asked for in their open letter to David Cameron.
She said: ‘The fact a Minister for Portsmouth is being appointed is fantastic, and I am delighted the Prime Minister is keeping to his word.
‘Michael Fallon being Minister for Portsmouth will mean he can report back to the Prime Minister and to both secretaries of state to ensure that the dockyard develops and that we have skilled jobs in the city.’
Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of the council, said: ‘We have been pushing for someone to take control of what’s going on here.
‘We have had very little support from the MoD but luckily the minister of Vince (Cable) is here to help.
‘What he will do is help us on the issue of shipbuilding.
‘He will help to try and bring in additional investment and see if we can replace jobs with other jobs.
‘It will be really useful having someone in government fighting for us.’
Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt’s praised Mr Fallon and said he was part of her ‘wish list’ which she talked about with the Prime Minister.
‘He will be someone that myself and community leaders can go to.
‘He has a particular brief to get this situation sorted out.
‘He is a very good and capable miister and individual, but also he is somebody that can be very effective in rallying the support of colleagues in government.
‘It’s a very positive step and something that I have asked for, and it was something I asked the Prime Minister in a meeting I had with him just before Christmas.’
The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth is highly unusual.
In 1981, Margaret Thatcher appointed the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine to Liverpool following the Toxteth riots.
He was eventually dubbed the ‘Minister for Merseyside’.
Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock said: ‘I welcome the initiative. It’s the first time it’s been done since Michael Heseltine was appointed Minister for Liverpool in the 1980s. At last maybe now the Government are taking the problems in Portsmouth seriously.
‘He has got to look at how we can preserve the skills base in Portsmouth and the greater Portsmouth area. We have got to make sure he realises the size and scope of the problems and can work with local authorities and unions to try to bring about a mechanism which will go some way to encourage other businesses – either shipbuilding or maritime-related – in the space vacated by BAE in the shipyard.
‘We have to bear in mind that Michael Fallon has already got two other jobs. I just hope he has the time and energy to devote to the issues we are facing.
‘I am in the process of writing a letter of welcome to him, saying I would appreciate him coming down here as soon as possible.’