‘Portsmouth shipbuilding plan is yet more talk around election time’

The shiphall in Portsmouth's dockyard
The shiphall in Portsmouth's dockyard
General manager Dave Livingstone.

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  • But government leaders say they’re committed to new bid to bring companies back
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WE HAVEN’T given up on bringing shipbuilding back to Portsmouth.

That was the message from government and city leaders yesterday following a summit where an action plan was laid out to ensure the shipyard becomes a thriving construction hub once again.

GMB regional organiser Gary Cook

GMB regional organiser Gary Cook

And they say talks have begun with a number of firms which have come forward – including a shipbuilder – and which want to move in.

But critics remain sceptical and believe it’s just more talk from Tory leaders that will likely not lead to anything concrete happening – and prime minister David Cameron too must sign up given he made a promise to bring shipbuilding back.

The key aims of the plan, agreed by London summit attendees Penny Mordaunt, Flick Drummond, minister for Portsmouth Mark Francois and defence minister Mark Lancaster, are;

n To bring in a company to begin construction work at the yard as soon as possible, potentially before the end of the year. The identities of interested parties are currently under wraps.

The appointment of a task force is what happened two and a half years ago, nothing has changed in those two and a half years.

Portsmouth Lib Dem leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson

n For Mr Francois to seek a commitment from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership that money is still available to help a new company cover start-up costs – originally set aside for Magma Structures before the deal collapsed.

n To devise a long-term strategy over the future use of the whole shiphall – which BAE Systems partly occupies – that ties in with the Royal Navy once its new HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales supercarriers are permanently based in the city by the end of 2020.

n To appoint a new Solent Maritime Task Force – an initiative first started in the wake of the loss of shipbuilding in 2013 – that will help shape the longer-term project – and which may lead to different industries coming into the yard but not necessarily a shipbuilder.

Speaking to The News following the hour-long summit at the Ministry of Defence, city MP Ms Mordaunt said: ‘We can’t give details of any of the options on the table.

‘But we did discuss these options, and how we can get a commercial company into the shiphall.

‘We need something that’s high-value enough to justify the overheads of the facility, but also has had all the necessary security checks so it wouldn’t cause any stress to the naval base prior to the two naval carriers and maintenance work coming in.

‘Companies have expressed an interest, across a whole range of things, but certainly shipbuilding is featured.

‘Everyone wants a resolution to this and we are all disappointed at the situation with Magma and want to get someone in there as soon as possible to help the place wash its face.’

But Prospect union official John Ferrett, who represents dockyard workers, says it’s just ‘more of the same’.

Mr Ferrett, also a Portsmouth councillor and the city Labour group leader, said: ‘Whilst we all welcome activity and we welcome people actually talking and looking for solutions, this does seem like more of the same – more window-dressing.

‘I don’t know what they can achieve in an hour that they haven’t been able to achieve over the last three years.

‘Clearly, it’s a very select group of people who are talking, who all have a government focus.

‘And we are still unclear what the minister for Portsmouth has actually done for Portsmouth.

‘There appears to be no interaction with the people who actually work at the base or their trade representatives.

‘So it just seems like PR, and that’s unfortunate.’

Portsmouth Lib Dem leader, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, was also very critical – and says it’s just another example of supposed commitments made in the run-up to an election.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson said: ‘They couldn’t even be bothered to come to Portsmouth.

‘The appointment of a task force is what happened two-and-a-half years ago, nothing has changed in those two-and-a-half years.

‘There was a task force, it reported, nothing happened.

‘With regards to the first bit, saying we may have someone to go in the shiphall, sounds like the sort of thing that people say at election time, and then hope people don’t notice when that promise is broken afterwards.

‘So it appears things are being said now because there’s an election coming up, in the same way the prime minister made his promise before an election in the hope the Tories can win some votes – when in reality nothing will happen.

‘As Flick Drummond has said, sometimes politicians make promises, knowing they will break them after an election, and clearly Conservative ministers think that too.’

And Cllr Vernon-Jackson warned any pledge the LEP made before for cash to help a new business at the yard may no longer be valid.

He said: ‘That LEP money will be time limited – if it’s not spent it will be reallocated.’

Mrs Drummond meanwhile remains open-minded about what could happen.

She said: ‘This is the start of the action plan.

‘Going forward, we don’t know what the future will hold, but we have to be flexible.

‘The longer-term plan is about how we can focus the shiphall around the Royal Navy.

‘That is my absolute focus.

‘I have been tasked with talking to the navy to see if we can find a business organisation which will be able to look into helping us create a business case, through a task force similar to what Rob Stevens did.

‘We can’t expect the Royal Navy to do that work.’

Mr Francois said: ‘We had a very productive discussion involving ministers, the local MPs and supporting officials.

‘We remain open-minded as to the possibilities and we will reconvene when we have more to say on progress.

‘In the meantime we want to explore with the Solent LEP how we can build on the work of the Maritime Taskforce to look at opportunities for the future.’

‘Elected representatives must stop playing games’

DOCKYARD union official Gary Cook has blasted the latest ‘talking shop’ held by Tory officials over the future of the shiphall.

Mr Cook, GMB regional organiser, says officials should admit whether the ‘game is over’ and tell the truth over what’s really going on.

He said: ‘You could take the minutes on the back of a fag packet in one hour.

‘It’s yet another talking shop. It seems like it was a mutual appreciation society meeting.

‘They most likely gave each other a pat on the back, telling each other what a wonderful job they’re doing.

‘It’s a complete waste of time, that won’t be bringing jobs back to Portsmouth.

‘And they can’t even give us any details of the companies who are interested.

‘None of the trade representatives or the workers have been involved in this. How meaningful is that?

‘There are no jobs, and the likelihood is small of any new jobs being created.

‘We were sold a pup and the people of Portsmouth and the surrounding areas were conned, by David Cameron and his weasel words. He had no intention of following through his promise to redundant workers.

‘And again I hope the people of Portsmouth and surrounding areas hold the Tories to account over it. They have to be honest with us for the very first time in three years. Just be honest with us and say whether the game is over, or not. Stop playing these stupid games.’

An overview of what happened to deal

THE original deal to bring composite structure builder Magma Structures to the dockyard collapsed in March.

The Ministry of Defence finally admitted after repeated calls by The News that the Magma deal had fallen through and the empty shiphall facility would become ‘a centre of engineering excellence’ to fix minehunter-class ships - work which already happens in the naval base.

But Minister for Portsmouth Mark Francois said the deal was very close to happening, were it not for the collapse of gas prices in the oil and gas market – which Magma’s parent company is involved in.

Mr Francois then revealed he had not given up attempts to bring shipbuilding back – and not ruled out bringing Magma back on board – and a summit would be held to work out the next steps.

Critics have said the prime minister should be the one stepping up to the plate - given he promised in a personal letter to The News in January 2014 he would do ‘everything in his power’ to save shipbuilding.

David Cameron’s pledge came after BAE Systems revealed in late 2013 that the firm would be moving its shipbuilding operation to Scotland, a move that put up to 1,000 jobs at risk.