Sunderland – Shipbuilding City of the World

This follow up to ‘The Case for Reintroducing the Shipbuilding Industry’ is about Sunderland – historically the greatest shipbuilding city in the world. Spanning 600 years, 400 shipyards prospered on the banks of the river Wear and this great city grew and prospered with it, building a quarter of the world’s ships. Simply put, the industry with 16 main yards was the DNA of the city.

But this number was reduced to nine during WW2 and later, due to foreign competition, the existing yards closed or merged. In 1977 the industry was nationalised by Labour and by 1986 what remained became North East Shipbuilders Ltd (NESL) and in December 1988, the last yard at Pallion closed – courtesy of a deal done between the Conservative government and the European Commission. This was probably one of the darkest deals ever undertaken in UK industry circles, underlining the EU’s role in all this.

The then EEC wanted to cut shipbuilding capacity and the subsidies given to existing state owned shipyards during this period. The government had to find a sacrificial lamb – and the Sunderland yards (considered the most efficient yards in Europe) were that lamb. This meant :

  1. All yards to close once existing work finished.
  2. All yards to be demolished.
  3. EEC to give £45m to the area to fund a new ‘enterprise zone’.
  4. A 10 year ban on any shipbuilding/ship repair business.

No sooner had the dust settled from their demolition when one site was transformed into the St. Peter’s campus of the University of Sunderland and the National Glass Museum was built on another. These new uses effectively ensured that shipbuilding on the Wear was officially dead and buried. So, 600 years of shipbuilding history was effectively wiped from the map by the EU and the Conservative Government. The anger over this is as strong today as it was then.

What Remains…

The river Wear is a very different place now with almost nothing to show of its past. Yet, quite remarkably, a fully built shipyard does survive – the former Doxford yard in the Pallion area of the city.

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When this site was built in 1975, it was hailed as one of the most advanced yards of its kind and became a template for many of the great yards worldwide. It earned the nickname of ‘ship factory’, where steel would enter one end and come out as a fully complete ship from the other.

 

 

After privatisation, the site became Pallion Engineering but it has struggled and the site’s condition today reflects this. In 2008, Sunderland City Council looked into increasing business rates from £55,000 to £277,000 per year – a sure sign that the council wished to rid the area of the industry for good. Current talk out of Sunderland seems to confirm this as an ongoing strategy with the council’s latest ‘consultation’ looking at building houses around the site. If action isn’t taken soon, it is very likely that this last survivor will be lost to developers.

How could this Shipyard be Reinstated?

Specifics aside, reinstating the yard would generally comprise of :-

  1. Investment to modernise the whole site, bringing it up to current technology standards similar to yards such as the German Meyer Werft yard and the Finnish Turku yard.
  2. Establishing a workforce for each department based upon the type of ship contracts under tender.
  3. Dredging the river to allow ships access to and from the North Sea.

What Ships could be Built Here?

European shipyards tend to be involved with building passenger ships, offshore support and specialised ships. Leaving the EU would in particular require us to have fisheries protection vessels and coastal patrol ships for the Royal Navy.  It would of course take time to grow this industry again, so small and medium size ships would be ideal to start with, for example, on leaving the Common Fisheries Policy and controlling our own fisheries there will be a strong home demand for new fishing vessels.

Employment Wage Rates

As a side note of possible interest to some, one of the most talked about issues when it comes to heavy industry is that of labour rates. However, the reality is that we can more than hold our own when competing with European countries. In 2012, the hourly rate for a British industry worker was somewhat less than for a worker in Norway, France and Germany! And after leaving the EU, we would have direct control over this.

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Clearly, a good wage for a plater, welder, electrician, plumber, labourer, machine operator and so on is better than a life on benefits, even if it is less than their European counterparts.

The Benefits

National industry is a force for good on so many levels, from the highest to the lowest :-

  1. Wealth for the country.
  2. A strong and evolving labour market.
  3. Genuine jobs and security.
  4. A strong and cohesive community.
  5. Global standing.

Shipbuilding is still one of the most labour intensive industries there is. Being multi-disciplined, it therefore has the potential to employ a large workforce again, the ‘labour’ as it were of Great Britain. For Sunderland, returning such an industry will give a lot more than just hope – it will give a purpose. However, the City Council are renowned for taking a dislike with anything to do with industry, as can be attested to by an interesting comment in ‘The Engineer’ journal a few years ago :-

“…though a Sunderland Council that hate all things industrial and wants retail, bars, restaurants, non-producing offices and villages in the wrong places, is not helping Pallion at the moment. In fact, they would like to see this important yard levelled for the rubbish they would replace it with, as it’s worth more in rates for them I suppose. Never mind the bigger picture and production potential for Britain.”

But Sunderland is the people, not the council. The loss of this industry is still felt to this day, so returning it, in my opinion, would help rejuvenate this once great city. But what would the benefits be in real terms :-

  1. First and foremost – pride.
  2. A wide variety of multi-skilled jobs.
  3. Genuine apprenticeships with the guarantee of a job after training – leading to reduced youth unemployment.
  4. The growth of businesses that would directly and indirectly supply the yard(s).
  5. A growing financial benefit to a new council (via business rates/council tax/investments etc) and therefore to the city through reinvestment.
  6. The growth of trade in the city through increased spending by new employees.
  7. The growth of infrastructure.
  8. Potential inward investment.
  9. Greater quality of life.
  10. Stronger communities.
  11. Reduced welfare support dependency.
  12. National and international exposure.

Conclusion

To ‘progressives’, heavy industry is a ‘dinosaur industry’ and a city like Sunderland must embrace modernist culture and attitudes.

But the North East also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 7.7% – after 25 years, the issue of unemployment is still a millstone around the neck of the region.

What’s clear is that all political parties (and Labour in particular) have no answer for this perpetual problem. This is because what may well revive this part of the country is the one thing all parties have turned their backs on – large-scale manufacturing. But by returning shipbuilding to Sunderland, UKIP could once again grow the prosperity of the city and the greater North East for the benefit of all.

If UKIP wants to capture the Labour vote, then pursuing Sunderland’s re-industrialisation is the perfect way to accomplish this.

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