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Could (and should) a strong commercial shipbuilding industry save Portsmouth dockyard?

For years there was obviously a Portsmouth fan working on South West Trains who ran the electronic timetable displays. Everytime you’d get on a train to Portsmouth you’d see that Portsmouth was home of the premier football club on the south coast. For a handful of years Portsmouth was the best football club south of the capital. However sadly that has ended but those few years pale into insignificance compared with how long the city has been home to the Royal Navy.

If you ask non Portsmouth people about what they know about the city, then it would be all about the Royal Navy and our naval history. The Mary Rose, the Victory, the Warrior are all on display in the city. If I was to finish the quartet of house groups from Meadowlands Middle School where I went then throw in the HMS Alliance, which is a submarine currently on display in Gosport (for the record I was in Victory and we dominated everything, from sports to brains – we were kick arse).

The point is Portsmouth’s naval history isn’t exactly a new thing, it is something that identifies the city. The dockyard is still by far the biggest employer in the town and that doesn’t even include all the small companies supplying the dockyard around the place.

Now I’m all for moving forward and diversifying and I won’t change my approach on that. Having one sector that dominates the landscape opens up issues like what we are seeing now, a government decision has placed a real impact on the city. It has happened before and look at how the mining communities have struggled to recover from Margaret Thatcher sticking it to them. There is one significant difference between the two situations though – the shipbuilding industry isn’t being culled – it is just being consolidated away from its natural home.

I won’t sit here and type that shipbuilding on the Clyde is a new thing because it isn’t, the problem has been the lack of a long-term shipbuilding strategy to ensure enough work for both dockyards. The world isn’t what it was in the early part of the last century and as we’ve seen for many centuries before that, but we live on an island nation and our role in patrolling the high seas should not be overstated.

There is a report in the Portsmouth News today entitled Commercial hopes for city’s shipyard given a boost with interest from firms wherein commercial opportunities seem abound to essentially move into the dockyard and build non naval vessels, either ensuring jobs or indeed creating new ones. On one hand this seems like a great save and would go a long way to saving both the pay packets of many Pompey folk and the supply chain that has built up but it forgets one thing – identity.

Portsmouth was – and is – and will continue to be the home of the Royal Navy. However shipbuilding in the city has been around since King Alfred in the 9th Century although it wasn’t until King Henry VII when the city played host to the first permanent home of the navy and shipbuilding. It is believed to be the world’s oldest dry dock. Basically what I’m saying is without naval shipbuilding in Portsmouth then how long until the Navy itself gets moved to another location?

This isn’t about where is better to build ships but more about a cohesive long-term naval strategy, which is something that seems lacking. The Cold War may be in the rear-view mirror and if we were to see another major worldwide conflict, it would be fought in a very different way to the first two, still the Royal Navy has its place and the fleet needs to be updated. It seems to me that long-term planning is not something that is happening at the moment and that the defence secretary doesn’t seem to be undertaking. If we suddenly needed to build ships for whatever reason and the Portsmouth dockyard had been shut for several years then we really are in a bind.

With the Type 26 Global Combat Ships set to start being built in 2016, these ships are the ones that should be built in Portsmouth. It was understood that BAE were to build these vessels in the city, until last week it was considered that Portsmouth would be shut after the portion of HMS Prince of Wales being built in Portsmouth was completed. Of course shipbuilding has been halted once before in Portsmouth before being reopened and it is hoped that this will be the case yet again.

Back to the commercial aspect, it would keep the supply chain stocked and no doubt plenty of naval shipbuilding would be able to get jobs in the commercial shipbuilding industry, but at what cost? Portsmouth is a naval city and the Royal Navy should be at the very centre of the identity of the people and the city.

I’m positive we haven’t seen the last of this story and BBC Question Time is coming from Portsmouth this week. I wonder how long ago this was planned because either the BBC got lucky or they know it is going to be feisty. Expect a large demonstration before the broadcast and expect the atmosphere to be heated to say the least. If the government can put up the defence secretary then it might be one of the most memorable episodes in a long while, I may even watch it this week for the first time in years. If it was down to the audience I’d bet my bottom dollar on the whole show being about the dockyard but I suspect David Dimbleby will try to move it along, at some point, but I certainly don’t envy him one jot.

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One Comment

  1. When shipbuilding in Portsmouth ceases next year it could signal an end to 500 years of the city’s history.

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