Minister for Portsmouth '˜hasn't given up on effort to bring shipbuilding back to city'

THE battle is not over '“ that's the message from the Minister for Portsmouth as he pledges to do everything he can to bring shipbuilding back to the city.

Friday, 18th March 2016, 6:00 am
HMS Prince of Wales at BAE Systems' shipbuilding bay within Portsmouth Naval Base
HMS Prince of Wales at BAE Systems' shipbuilding bay within Portsmouth Naval Base

Mark Francois is to join government leaders at a summit in an effort to thrash out a masterplan to ensure the specialist construction work comes back.

Speaking exclusively to The News, the former armed forces minister said the original deal to bring composite structure firm Magma Structures to the shiphall was very close to happening – and that he is desperate to see a deal succeed for the sake of the region’s economy.

Mr Francois will hold crunch talks with Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt and defence minister Mark Lancaster at a conference expected to happen on April 19 to ‘start afresh’ and look closely at what can be done.

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Minister for Portsmouth Mark Francois

That could mean bringing Portchester-based Magma – which plans to axe 10 staff – back on board or even working up a plan to bring shipbuilders in to another part of the city away from the shiphall.

But critics say the prime minister should be the one stepping up to the plate – given he promised in a personal letter to The News he would do ‘everything in his power’ to save shipbuilding.

Mr Francois said: ‘We will look at this afresh and see what we can do.

‘We are prepared to explore every avenue we can, because we haven’t given up on it.

Minister for Portsmouth Mark Francois

‘I won’t say we have got red-hot leads at the moment, but the point of the summit is to look at the whole thing afresh and see if there is any other way to solve this problem.

‘We are keeping open minds on this. It’s important to the city.

‘We will look at the whole process again, whether it be in the shiphall or somewhere else in Portsmouth, in order to return shipbuilding.’

Mr Francois, who took up the city ministerial post last summer, added: ‘What I want to stress is, with Magma, we really, really tried.

‘We got to the head of the agreement after a lot of negotiating.

‘The MoD was leading on this, but as Minister for Portsmouth I was in constant contact with defence minister Mark Lancaster.

‘The MoD made good progress with Magma and was determined it would pull off. The difficulty was, Magma’s parent company is very involved in the oil and gas business and with the collapse of gas prices, clearly that hit the company hard and it meant it couldn’t go ahead.

‘We haven’t given up with that. We very nearly did it. There was no lack of will on our part. Let’s see what happens in the future.

‘Most of our efforts were focused on Magma, and if its situation changes, then let’s see whether we can return to the original position.’

It comes after the MoD, after repeated pressure from The News, finally admitted the Magma deal had fallen through and said the empty shiphall facility would become ‘a centre of engineering excellence’ to fix minehunter-class ships – work which already happens in the naval base. GMB regional organiser Gary Cook, who represents dockyard workers, is not convinced by Mr Francois’ pledge and is demanding a response from David Cameron.

Mr Cook said: ‘It goes back to what the prime minister said he would do. He said he would do everything in his power to bring shipbuilding back to Portsmouth.

‘What will he bring to the table? We need the direct intervention of the prime minister. That’s the only thing that should happen.’

Speaking about the collapse of the Magma deal, Mr Cook said: ‘If it wasn’t the fall in gas prices, it would have been the recession in China, and if not that then something else.

‘Politicians always seem to have somewhere to hide. I am fed up with the excuses about why shipbuilding hasn’t come back to Portsmouth.’