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Can Sandwich learn from the Chatham Dockyard closure?
Chatham Dockyard
When the dockyard closed in Chatham 7,000 lost their jobs

How do you cope with job losses on the scale announced by Pfizer in Sandwich?

If you count contractors and ancillary workers as well as staff, it could mean that as many as 4,000 people are affected.

The authorities are getting ready to handle the situation - MPs and councillors have visited the Commons to talk to ministers.

East Kent will suffer and will have to try to recover but this situation is not unprecedented in Kent.

Thousands lost their jobs when the coal pits closed and 7,000 people went when Chatham Dockyard closed in 1984. Can the people of Sandwich learn from those who experienced the devastation in the Medway towns in the mid-80s?

Devastation in Medway

A view from the air of Medway
Did the Medway towns completely recover from the dockyard closure?

Councillor Jane Chitty is a veteran of the Medway towns and remembers those dark days. "It was stark, it was frightening and the one thing that caused more concern than anything else was the shock of it happening in the way in which it did," she said.

"The most important thing is once the reality hits you, you then have to kick in with the determination to sell what skills you have within the towns and this is what we did."

"We had a huge skill background which has stood us in very good stead. Also those skills are still existing now."

Specialist skills

Pfizer workers have specialist skills in research and development

However, the difference between Chatham and Sandwich is that the dockyard workers largely had transferable skills such plumbing, electrical and engineering.

The people in Sandwich work in the specialist field of pharmaceutical research and development. How do you find so many jobs for people with such specific skills?

"I think you support them and go out there and tell people exactly what those skills are," said Ms Chitty.

"One of the great problems now in the economy is having the right skills for the right businesses - pharmaceuticals is coming on leaps and bounds in this country and has done over the last 10 or 12 years.

"So they have an advantage that perhaps we didn't have when the dockyard closed because their skills are so specific. I know its a huge complex in Sandwich but the opportunities still remain.

"It's about people getting together and recognising the advantages they have and what they can promote. That way they'll have something very, very valuable to offer the market but it's getting over that initial shock - it tears the heart out of the community when it happens."

A way back

Some would argue that the Medway towns have never completely recovered from the closure of the dockyard. The fear is that unless another major source of employment is found in Sandwich, people will leave and the area will never be the same again.

"Over the years Medway has gradually clawed its way back," said Ms Chitty.

"When the dockyard closed the unemployment was something like 23.5% but within a year to 18 months we'd got that down to 19.5% - still a horrendous figure but by having a mixed economy you have mixed opportunities and Medway is absolutely thriving.

"We have some very good small to medium sized businesses here and they are the ones that are the major employers - it's not the large companies that have created that employment.

According to Ms Chitty, there is a way back.

Pfizer's proud history in Kent
02 Feb 11 |  England
Pfizer to close UK research site
03 Feb 11 |  Business


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