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Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Rough times for Clyde workforce
Govan shipyard
The MoD has been the source of much work
By BBC Scotland's James Cook

The future of the last shipyards on Clydeside has been hanging in the balance for years.

The stark fact of the matter is that the yards at Govan and Scotstoun have been losing a lot of money, some say up to 3m a month.

The attempt by BAE Systems to rescue the struggling yards - and the thousands of workers who rely on them - has been fraught with difficulties.

The company took over Scotstoun first, from GEC, and soon realised it would have to look further than the Royal Navy to fill the order book.

Kvaerner Govan sign
Kvaerner sold up two years ago
It had a moderate degree of success, building two ships for Malaysia and three for Brunei, one of which is expected to be launched within the next 12 months.

But these orders alone are not enough and there have been fears that the company will be forced to issue redundancy notices to 500 workers at Scotstoun when the last of the Brunei orders is completed.

The Govan yard has come even closer to disaster.

Its darkest hour was in 1999 when the Norwegian Kvaerner group, which had owned the yard since privatisation, put it up for sale.

Workers, led by the GMB union convener at the yard, Jamie Webster, pledged to fight the closure and BAE Systems decided the fight could be won, snapping up the yard and in the process taking its share of the UK's shipbuilding workforce to 90%.

After a nervy 18 months that confidence began to look justified when the government awarded the facility a 140m contract for two Royal Navy landing craft.

Ro-ro competition

The then Scottish Secretary, Dr John Reid, told workers at the yard: "A year ago Govan had no owner, far less any orders. The award of this contract is magnificent news."

It was, but Govan had hoped for more. The yard had been bidding for six roll-on roll-off ferries to be constructed for the MoD.

Two of the contracts were awarded to Harland and Wolff in Belfast. The other four ferries are to be built by Flensburger Schiffbau in Germany.

There were widespread reports at the time that the German bid had undercut Govan by 50%. Sources close to the First Minister, Henry McLeish, have told BBC News Online Scotland that the figure was actually closer to 80%.

Yard union convener Jamie Webster
Yard union convener Jamie Webster
"The Clydeside yards are going to have problems if they seek to rely on MoD work," said David Smith, a lecturer in ship and marine technology at Strathclyde University.

"The history of the last few years is that the yards have been hanging on and waiting for something from the MoD. Well they've been working hard to try to secure them, but the reality is that it has taken successive governments longer and longer to come up with anything."

Mr Smith says Scotstoun has the right idea by looking abroad "The yards must look elsewhere, for example towards overseas naval work at Scotstoun. With its facilities Govan can probably still compete for the contracts for larger commercial vessels."

All these orders though are small beer compared with the glory days of the Clyde shipyards.

The champagne was broken on the last of the great liners in 1967, when the Queen sent the QEII proudly down the slipway of John Brown's yard in Clydebank.

The memories of those days have long since faded, a generation has grown up and moved on, and although the unions deny it, many industry insiders question whether Clydeside now boasts the skills to outfit a liner in the future.

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