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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Cammell Laird blow will end era
by BBC News Online's Finlo Rohrer
The cranes of Cammell Laird shipyard cast long shadows over Birkenhead.
Much hope was invested in this latest incarnation of Cammell Laird, built on the site of the old yard which closed in 1993 after 170 years of shipbuilding.
The current company grew out of Coastline group which initially rented part of the derelict Cammell Laird dockyard.
In the mid-1990s it changed its name to Cammell Laird and in a matter of years it grew from a small operation to employing hundreds as it built a lucrative and profitable trade repairing and refitting vessels.
Among the famous ships to go down the old yard's great slipways onto the Mersey were the cruise liners Mauretania and Windsor Castle, the Alabama, an American Civil War Confederate raider, and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
First steel ship
The old yard had pioneered modern shipbuilding, especially after the construction of its first "graving dock" between 1853-6.
In 1858, it built the world's first steel ship, the Ma Roberts, for Dr Livingstone's Zambezi expedition, and in the 1920s, the first all-welded ship, the Fullagar.
But in 1993 the doors of the old yard closed for what many assumed would be the last time, the business sunk by declining MoD orders and its ineligibility for subsidies for merchant work.
Many believed a secret clause in a deal between the government and the European Commission in 1985, reducing British shipbuilding capacity in return for £140m, helped sink the yard.
The clause meant yards like Cammell Laird would never be able to seek subsidies for merchant work as they would be permanently classed as "warship yards".
MoD orders, always the financial foundation of big shipyards, dropped off as the Cold War drew to a close with the last ships built by the Birkenhead yard, four submarines, mothballed as soon as they were finished and eventually sold on by the navy.
For the thousands who had worked there, the 1993 closure marked the end of a great history that had seen the company's yards in Wirral and Tyneside produce more than 5,000 ships, including 500 during World War II.
In 1950, when the mighty ship was being built, the yard was thronged with 16,000 workers, but it was a time when Britain produced 40% of the world's ships.
By 1993, when the yard last closed its doors, that share had declined to a mere 2% after years of competition from giant subsidised yards in Japan and South Korea.
Soon after, Coastline started renting the part of the yard and eventually took part of the premises and the illustrious name before floating on the stock exchange in 1997.
Its decision to concentrate on repairing and refitting vessels, at a time when ship owners preferred that cheaper option than buying new ones, helped send its shares soaring.
In the spring of 2000, they were making preparations for the arrival of the Costa Classica liner, with work underway on the giant mid-section to be inserted in the middle of the ship.
If the "jumbo-isation" had been completed to the satisfaction of Italian owners Costa Crocciere an identical contract could have followed for another Costa ship meaning millions in revenue.
It was understandable that there was optimism that shipbuilding would return in the form of two cruise liners for the American Luxus group.
But the Costa Crocciere never arrived, a dispute with the owners leaving the redundant mid-section floating on the Mersey, and the Luxus deal is yet to materialise.
Birkenhead MP Frank Field is optimistic that whatever happens, another phoenix will rise from Cammell Laird's ashes and shipbuilding will eventually return to the banks of the Mersey.
"The irony is a thousand people are there working - they haven't been so busy in months and it is clearly an immediate cashflow problem, " he told BBC News Online.
"The lesson [any] new people will take on is moving from ship repair to major shipbuilding is an immensely risky route."
Mr Field said there would be an economic and psychological effect on the area.
He added: "But whatever the day holds I've no doubt that we will see the whole thing rise again."
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