CITY leaders have vowed to keep up the fight to protect Portsmouth’s shipbuilding future after a senior government minister cast doubts over its survival plan.
Business secretary Vince Cable said he does not think a £150m project to safeguard production at the BAE Systems site is ‘a runner’.
His words are a blow to those who have been lobbying hard for the scheme, which could secure the future of hundreds of jobs.
But city leaders have vowed to press on.
Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt says she will keep lobbying the government with the idea.
But she admits the project is a long shot and a decision would need to be made by the end of the year.
It hinges on a plan to build two offshore patrol vessels to avoid a construction gap from 2014, when work in Portsmouth is due to be completed on the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Ms Mordaunt said: ‘I find Cable’s comment rather odd because what we should be thinking is if something is cost effective and there is a need for it we should do it.
‘I don’t think anyone could argue there isn’t a need for the navy to have a couple more hulls.
‘If we have got a two-year gap we have got a problem because you need to retain people and skills so we have to spend money to retain that capability.
‘If you’re going to spend money getting people to twiddle their thumbs for two years, aren’t you better spending money on something for them to do and if you didn’t want to crew them you could sell them.’
An agreement between the Ministry of Defence and BAE means millions would be spent in the two-year gap despite no ships being built.
There are fears the company would therefore get rid of its Portsmouth shipyard and move future construction to Scotland.
Gary Cook is a representative of the GMB union, which looks after more than 500 shipyard workers in Portsmouth.
He backs the idea for two offshore patrol vessels to be built.
‘It is definitely the right thing to do, not only for our members but also for the navy and for the country,’ he said.
‘Among the workers there has been a feeling of real concern and anxiety but with Vince Cable making statements such as that this will turn to anger and frustration.
‘It’s a very short-sighted view. Our shores are very exposed and the fleet that we have got is looking a bit battered and bruised.
‘It would bring us into the 21st century. The nation needs to protect the skills which exist within Portsmouth.’
BAE Systems says it has lots of options to consider but that no decision has yet been made.
A spokeswoman said: ‘We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Defence to explore all possible options to determine how best to sustain the capability to deliver complex warships in the UK in the future.
‘This work is ongoing and we are committed to keeping our employees and unions informed as it progresses.’