Jim Higgins

Bristol fashion

(June 1976)

From the Spectator, 19 June 1976, p.13.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In March of this year the Sunderland ship repair yard, Greenwells, closed down and 400 skilled workers lost their jobs. Viewed from some Whitehall bureaucratic fastness, this fact may not cause much loss of sleep after all, the figure represents only 0.04 per cent of the total unemployed in Britain. Viewed from the harsher vantage-point of Sunderland, where a 12 per cent unemployment rate is twice the national average, it is a significant addition to the local dole queue.

In normal circumstances one might have expected a work-in or demands for the nationalisation of the yard. But the circumstances were not normal. Greenwells Dry Dock was already nationalised – acquired by the government as a by-product of the Court Line rescue operation two years ago.

The main assets of the dock, buildings and plant, are owned by Sunderland Shipbuilders, who are themselves an associated company of North East Coast Ship Repairers, with the whole lot nationalised under the control of the Department of Industry. There is some dispute about the profitability of Greenwells in the past. The government employed a firm of accountants, Touche Ross, who estimated losses over the last ten years at £796,000. Much of this was a capital write-off, however, and when the trading loss of £300,000 was probably a function of the complicated group financing of Court Line rather than an accurate indication of the Greenwells situation. Nevertheless, it was, like so many ageing shipyards, in need of capital. An estimated requirement of £750,000 seems to have been the prime cause for the DOI’s decision to close.

It was at this point that Mr Christopher Bailey, the highly successful owner of Bristol Channel Ship Repairers, became interested in the yard. Bailey has a proven record of success in resurrecting failed ship-repair yards. A few years ago he took over Swansea Dry Dock, which had made a loss for thirty years, from the government receiver. That dock now makes a profit and last year turnover was about £2 million. Just the man, one might have thought, to invest his own money in Greenwells and, in the process, to save quite a few jobs.

In January the DOI were told that Bailey was interested in the yard, but did not respond. In April the Labour MP for Sunderland, Mr Fred Willey, accompanied Christopher Bailey to meet officials of the DOI. At this meeting they were informed that, despite the fact that the DOI had closed the yard, its reopening would have to be negotiated with Sunderland Shipbuilders, North East Coast Ship Repairers and Sunderland Council (who own the land). Somewhat puzzled by the logic of all this to-ing and fro-ing, but wishing to get things moving, Bailey contacted the various parties. In the event Bristol Channel were more annoyed than puzzled when they received a demand, from Sunderland Shipbuilders, for a rental of £25,000 per annum for five years, at which point the rent would be increased to £100,000. This is really quite extortionate. Sunderland ship repairers have been paying a rent to the council of only £3,000 and the yard and its assets, being now completely unproductive, are a net drain on resources in maintenance costs.

The rigour of the rental demand gives rise to a strong suspicion that the DOI are more concerned to prevent another Bailey success, where they and others have failed, than to secure employment in the area. This suspicion is not confined to Bristol Channel. The Sunderland District Committee of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, with 10,000 members in the area, have come to the conclusion that “Bristol Channel is being presented with a set of grossly prohibitive terms to prevent the takeover of the dock”. Such is their anger that they are recommending their members to disaffiliate from the Labour Party.

All of this is quite absurd. Bristol Channel consider that at least £1 million will be needed to put Greenwells into successful operation. This is entirely within their means and their intention, if they acquire the yard. Mr Bailey, of course, is a comparatively rich man, the ex-Greenwell workers are not, despite the £300,000 redundancy pay and their continuing receipt of wage-related unemployment benefit. The government that has been prepared to dispense with all precedent in forcing through the ship repair nationalisation Bill, on the pretext of saving jobs, is simultaneously denying jobs to several hundred workers from that industry. It is all very depressing.


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