The UK’s storm-hit shipbuilding industry has been given a new protector this week, with the launch of a trade body aiming to promote its interests at home and abroad.
The new organisation, the Society of Marine Industries (SMI), will bang the drum for the maritime sector within government, and arrange overseas delegations to open up new markets.
John Murray, chief executive of the SMI, said despite the pessimism surrounding much of the UK’s shipbuilding sector, many equipment manufacturers had been successful in finding new customers abroad, particularly in the US and Asia. ‘Our members have had to look overseas for customers because the market in the UK has diminished, and they have been very successful in doing that. They have become one of the success stories of British manufacturing, despite the strength of sterling.’
The launch comes just a week after BAE Systems announced plans to make 1,150 people redundant at its shipyards on the Clyde, following a lack of short-term orders. Danny Carrigan, national officer of the AEEU, said a taskforce including representatives from the DTI and Scottish enterprise minister Wendy Alexander was being set up to determine how these job losses could be reduced.
‘There is obviously a need for companies to adjust the scale of their workforce to respond to particular problems that arise, but the proposed axing of 1,000 jobs is excessive. We will be encouraging BAE to take a longer-term view.’
The company’s announcement has emphasised the contrast between the UK’s large shipbuilders, struggling from over-capacity within the industry and a shortage of contracts, and the equipment suppliers that have been steadily building up orders overseas.
The new association, which will replace the British Marine Equipment Council, is broadening its remit to cover companies from the offshore oil and gas industries, as well as marine and naval equipment manufacturers.
To mark its launch, a three-hulled demonstration warship, the £13m RV Triton, was sailed up the Thames to the Port of London this week. The trimaran, dubbed ‘the warship of the future’, was built by south coast shipbuilder Vosper Thornycroft, and it is hoped it may eventually replace the Royal Navy’s type 22 and type 23 frigates.The RV Triton has recently returned from a tour of the US, and is undergoing trials to test the suitability of three-hulled vessels for use as warships.
Vosper’s chief executive, Martin Jay, will act as president of the SMI. The company recently secured a larger-than-expected share of the contract to build the first six of 12 Type 45 destroyers for the Royal Navy.
BAE Systems, prime contractor for the destroyers, had entered an unsolicited bid to build all twelve vessels. But defence secretary Geoff Hoon last week rejected the bid, and announced Vosper would now build and outfit ‘substantial sections’ of each ship.Vosper will now go ahead with a planned £30m move from its yard at Southampton to a larger site along the south coast at Portsmouth.
A spokesman for Vosper said work on the new site within Portsmouth Naval Base was due to begin by the end of the year, with the company’s main shipbuilding activity due to move across to the yard in time to start work on the Type 45 contract in early 2003. ‘The move will offer us more space and the chance to build a more advanced facility,’ he said.
Meanwhile, speculation has arisen that the Ministry of Defence decide to buy fewer Type 45s than the 12 originally planned. Many in the industry believe the MoD may instead buy more of the smaller Future Surface Combatants (FSC), multi-role frigates such as the RV Triton.
A spokesman for the MoD said the Royal Navy was still working on the assumption that it would need a joint force of 32 warships, including 12 destroyers and 32 frigates. ‘But the strategic defence review is an ongoing process, and we are constantly reviewing the requirements we have, which are dependent on the current and future strategic environment around the world.’