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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 08:34 GMT
Tyne for change on shipbuilding river
By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News, Newcastle

The disused cranes in the Swan Hunter shipyard are being sold off
Sunset industry: The death knell has sounded for Tyne shipbuilding

The New Year often means a new start, and as 2007 approaches the focus is on what the future holds for a historic artery of North East life and labour: the River Tyne.

Industry on the river was dealt a body blow this summer when work at the Swan Hunter shipyard on an unfinished ship was handed over to BAE Systems at Govan in Glasgow.

The Ministry of Defence's decision meant the Tyneside yard, one of the most famous shipbuilding names in the region, was mothballed.

As the months dragged on, no further shipbuilding contracts were secured, and a proposal to change tack and become a breaking business did not come about.

In an effort to keep the river as a major site for industry in the region, a task force was set up featuring North Tyneside and Newcastle City councils, and development bodies One North East and TyneWear Partnership.

Its brief was to explore the options for employment-led regeneration on a 520 hectare site along the north bank of the river, from North Shields Fish Quay up to Walker riverside in Newcastle.

'No future'

But already one thing is clear. The river, which for decades rang to the noise of shipbuilding and engineering, has witnessed the end of an industrial era.

"Shipbuilding is a non-starter," says Swan Hunter boss Jaap Kroese.

"Both on Tyneside and in the UK as a whole it has no future.

We want to see employment here again - whether it is engineering or offices or whatever
Jaap Kroese, Swan Hunter

"I am very sad that ship making has ended. But we knew two and a half years ago that things could not go on."

Just five years ago, he had told the BBC business website that shipbuilding was "a sunrise industry, and not a sunset one".

Now, though, Swan Hunter is putting the yard up for sale, the iconic cranes which dominated the skyline for decades are set to come down, and Mr Kroese is hoping that something can be done to provide a new future for the site.

The 67-year-old Dutchman has already held a number of meetings with the task force members and is due to meet North Tyneside mayor John Harrison very soon.

"We want to see the land used properly in another way - one that provides jobs. We want to see employment here again - one way or another, whether it is engineering or offices or whatever.

"Whoever buys the land will have to work with the local council and the other agencies."

A task force examining the future of industry on the River Tyne will report on how to use rundown and abandoned sites on its north bank.

Shipbreaking non-starter

All potential employment, and other uses, for the riverside site are being investigated, including industries such as oil and gas.

Fewer than 10 people are still working on Swan Hunter's site and recent plans to re-establish the yard as a ship breaker have been axed.

This is a hugely significant gateway into the North East
North Tyneside mayor John Harrison

Swan Hunter had applied for waste management licences this autumn, to begin ship breaking operations, with many predicting a new future for the yard cutting up naval vessels and defunct North Sea oil rigs.

"We had some contact with the Ministry of Defence about looking at shipbreaking contracts, but it was not feasible," says Mr Kroese.

However, industry minister Margaret Hodge has said she is confident that manufacturing still has a future along the Tyne.

She said the changes along the river had to be seen as an "opportunity" for the future, while lamenting the loss of 260 jobs at Swan Hunter in the summer.

Mr Kroese and Newcastle and North Tyneside council leaders, John Shipley (r) and John Harrison
Mr Kroese is consulting with local council leaders about the way ahead

And, referring to possible future uses for the land, North Tyneside Council's elected mayor John Harrison, says: "We have ruled nothing in or out.

"But some of the industrial land along the north bank of the river has become under-used over the past few years.

"This is a hugely significant gateway into the North East.

"We believe it has tremendous potential for job creation which would benefit not only the residents of North Tyneside and Newcastle but the rest of the North East."

He said the task force had a responsibility to local people and the whole region to make the most of the site's potential.

"We are working closely with partners and stakeholders during this major study to ensure all opportunities are considered."

False dawn

For most of the 20th century a River Tyne without shipbuilding would have seemed unthinkable.

At its peak the Tyne built 25% of the world's shipping, while at one stage the UK was the world's largest shipbuilding nation.

The Tuxedo Princess floating nightclub
The only major ship on the River Tyne now is a floating nightclub

Among the ships built on the Tyne was the Cunard liner Mauretania, which on its launch in 1906 revolutionised steamship design and was the largest and fastest ocean liner in the world.

But between 1993 and 2003 not one ship was launched from Swan Hunter's yard.

In 1995 Mr Kroese took the decision to invest and rescue Swan Hunter, and things appeared to go well, with a number of refurbishment contracts and then the construction of Largs Bay: a 16,160-tonne ship operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

However, its sister ship, Lyme Bay, was never finished on the River Tyne, being taken to Scotland for fitting out.

It was the first time in the 145-year history of Swan Hunter that a ship left the yard unfinished.

'Working hard'

It was a blow for Mr Kroese, who had first seen the yard in 1955 in an era when - as he says - the Tyne was "a river where there was nothing but shipyards".

Now, despite the closure of Swan Hunter, he says it is "fantastic the two councils and the development agency are working to try and find a future for the river".

The river study, being carried out by three groups of independent consultants, is due to see the light of day in an interim report early in the New Year, with a full report later in the spring.

By then it should be clear what industries, if any, can take the place of the defunct shipmaking industry on the River Tyne.

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