xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> Scottish Shipbuilding - Where is the future for the Clyde?
Shipping & Shipbuilding News - 26/04/2016 - The Brightest Maritime Daily

Shipping Times

Scotland News - Posted 26/04/2016

Scottish Shipbuilding - Where is the future for the Clyde?

Editorial: Options for shipbuilding dont necessarily lie in navy ships

Scottish Shipbuilding
The State of Play

Recent worries over government commitments to the latest frigates due to be built on the Clyde have caused reactions in the press and public realm that necessitate a hard look at what shipbuilding in Scotland today is, and what its future could and may possibly not be.

Scotland at one time, as a nation, produced more tonnage per capita than any other country in the world. Nearly every ocean linked town and (some inland) had shipyards, with notable centres in Dumbarton, Inverclyde, Glasgow and Ayrshire, as well as in Dundee, Leith, Aberdeen and in some other smaller towns in other areas. Between them they constructed ships and smaller craft that built the commercial, coastal, fishing and naval fleets not only of Scotland, but the UK and the Empire as well for customers in Europe and elsewhere.

The main centre was of course the Clyde, as it is now. There were so many shipyards in this one region that it is possible to miss some out when compiling a list today.

The growth of shipbuilding came with steam. Wealthy families saw opportunities and a combination of this and one of the best education systems in the world meant that when they took hold of the new era, they not only followed trends but were trend-setters and innovators. For over 150 years the Clyde dominated shipbuilding with markets in colonial countries, countries with strong Scottish connections, and in the homes fleets, of which Scotland had more than its fair share, the largest shipping companies being born and grown here, along with links to other nations' concerns such as Canada and New Zealand.

The decline of fortunes first hit the Clyde after the First World War. The loss of many promising engineers and innovators was one aspect of this, along with a general slump in world trade. By the 1930s some yards were struggling so hard they have to create their own work and a few did not make it, for example McMillan's of Dumbarton, for long a worthy rival of their neighbours Wm Denny, succumbed in 1932.

The trade picked up through the 1930s but it was the Second World War that gave all the yards a boost, as war often does. Post war many merchant ships were old, or had been lost, and a boom occurred that seemed to herald a new age, but the world was changing fast. The jet place came in, spelling the end of the passenger ship as a means of regular ocean travel, and the Empire was being dismantled. By the 1960's, after what seemed a Golden Age, suddenly everything looked bleak. Through the sixties a domino effect happened as shareholders took fright and investment and orders dried up. One by one the yards closed or were imperilled. Drastic action was taken in the 1970s and nationalisation was seen as the saviour. By now labour-led rather than innovation-led initiatives meant that the yards became more and more uncompetitive and by 1979 despite orders coming in for many of the yards, the future looked bleak.

The Thatcher years saw a change in policy. Dubbed a lame-duck industry all support was withdrawn. One by one the yards closed, private and nationalised, until by the end of the eighties only a handful survived.

By this time the whole nature of industrial and commercial Scotland had changed out of recognition. Shipowners, once the mainstay of capital flows to the yards. had all but fled the industry or sold up. Ship-management took the place of ownership and with more and more HQs in key industries now in England, as well as the dismantling of core industries such as coal and steel, the climate was no longer in shipbuilding and engineering's favour.

Through the nineties commercial shipbuilding was largely at Govan and Port Glasgow, but difficulties were head. Govan was bought by BAE and they ended commercial production. Holland-House owned Fergusons continued but largely due to the owner, Mr Dunnett, being passionate about his shipyard.

In the 2000s Fergusons saw its orders dry up and for a period no ships of any note we produced. Meantime the yards of the Upper Clyde saw periods of boom and bust in warship construction.

By the 2010s, this decade, it seemed that Clyde shipbuilding would only survive as a warship builder. BAE SYSTEMS declared that the Clyde was the centre of its UK operations and closed their yard in England.

The biggest change occurred just recently when Jim McColl, a wealthy engineer who owns Clyde Blowers Group decided to buy Fergusons and invest in the shipyard. And recently we have learned that the promised orders to the Clyde for the Type 26 Frigate may be cut down or delayed.

So Where Are We Now?

BAE SYSTEMS at Govan and Scotstoun have work in hand on offshore vessels for the Royal Navy. They have completed their works on the carriers, as far as the Clyde shipyards are concerned. Now they await final go ahead for the construction of the Type 26 Frigates. Meanwhile, the last commercial shipbuilder on the Clyde, Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, is in the process of enlarging its shipyard and has recently won orders for two very large ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne, bringing this custom back full circle.

Elsewhere in Scotland shipbuilding is the hands of two smaller builders, at Ardmaleish on Bute and at Buckie in the North East. These yards produce small vessels such as workboats and fishing vessels and at Buckie their recently completed Hull 671 was actually constructed in Poland.

When it comes to engineering for shipbuilding in Scotland, there are a number of firms extant who produce world class products. Rolls Royce own the former Brown Bros in Dunfermline who make stabilisers and steering gear for example, whilst British Polar Engine and Kelvin Diesels in Govan still make marine engines to this day, although on a very much smaller basis.

To put it in a nutshell the 'state of play' is historically poor. Compared to the industrial might of Scotland post-war and our European friends, the prognosis can hardly be said favourable. However, if individuals such as Jim McColl and others in the smaller concerns are any indication, it is that a future for shipbuilding is here. Certainly in the case of Fergusons owned by McColl as it mirrors what made shipbuilding a success story in its early days i.e., a combination of passion, expertise, wealth and available skill base as well as location and of course, now, heritage.

Warship construction has been focussed on as the main player in Scotland, but this is problematic industrially and politically. The UK government has made no bones about its willingness to let market forces dictated warship build policy. Already we have seen the construction of auxiliary ships, which traditionally were seen as naval build and therefore subject to 'home-grown' policy, go to South Korea whilst the UK government seems quite willing to see English warship construction go to the wall. This does not bode well for Scotland, which may well one day become independent and therefore will have to compete with other nations to build warships for rUK. Which is of course perfectly possible, but it removes at once any security of tenure as it were.

And should Scotland remain in the UK, the loss of English naval manufacturing is of even more concern, as it would appear then that politically there would be less of an outcry in the UK in the wider sense should warship-build go abroad.

Another (yet another!) review of UK warship build capability is on-going at the moment and yet again nerves are rattled at the prospects of this review suggesting re-starting English capability, which is of course something to be applauded, but it does raise concerns about the previous strategy from BAE SYSTEMS, endorsed by the Government, to focus naval build on the Clyde and therefore raises concerns as to the level of investment BAE SYSTEMS will make there if the government signals a change of heart.

All in all the future of warship construction, on the scale scene heretofore, is hardly secure. Sacred cows have already been slaughtered and without foreign naval orders, which have dried up in recent times due to home navies having a build at home policy as well as competition from countries such as Germany, then BAE SYSTEMS in Scotland seems too reliant on Government policy, which now looks less certain than at any time in British naval history.

Shipbuilding requires such heavy capital investment and ongoing costs that it is almost impossible to keep going without security of orders. It is a high wage, high cost industry before even an ounce of steel or so much as a washer is purchased. As we have seen in 20th Century history, what flourishes one year can be entirely extinct within weeks without security of orders.

When it comes to building for foreign navies, it was recently announced that BAE SYSTEMS is in the running to build new ships for the Australian Navy, but, despite being based on the Type 26, they will be built in Australia. Period. It looks increasingly likely that the jam promised is merely that, and that the bread-winners will not be the Clyde, certainly not on this order should it go to BAE SYSTEMS.

This leaves. it would appear, Scotland with only one sure-fire road ahead and that is, unbelievable only a couple of years ago, commercial shipbuilding. Although small compared to the lengthy and expensive frigate and destroyer building on the Upper reaches of the Clyde, commercial shipbuilding has one clear advantage - the control and outsourcing remains in the hands of local headquarters, and not at the stroke of a political pen.

To balance this view it has to be said that the UK Government has said it is 'committed' to building the Type 26 on the Clyde and a recent leak suggests the start date could be in April 2017. Just last month the UK government awarded a contract of nearly half a billion pounds to BAE SYSTEMS to progress the contract, -- this means BAE SYSTEMS will start awarding contracts to suppliers ahead of actual construction for the first three vessels at least.

Also the UK government gave assurances, after criticisms and concerns were raised by opposition parties and the unions, that the programme was on track and nothing had changed.

From all of this you can judge for yourself, but Scotland, in the view of this writer, has to look to commercial as well as navy build if it wants a more secure future in shipbuilding.

( Ferguson Marine's latest ferry for Calmac could signal the way ahead )

Front page of the Shipping Times
About Us - Click here for contacts, enquiries, addresses
Editorial contact: editor@shippingtimes.co.uk
Copyright 2016 Shipping Times UK - Reproduction prohibited without permission