Curtain goes down on the end of an era as Clydeside yard puts up For Sale sign
Never again will the former John Brown Shipyard echo to the rattle of riveting hammers or the crackle of welding torches as thousands of men crafted ships and, for the past 30 years, platforms and rigs for the North Sea oil and gas industry.
French oilfield engineering and construction group Buoygues Offshore, current owner of the 65-acre yard known for the past 21 years as UiE, yesterday symbolically padlocked the yard’s gates for the last time and hung out a For Sale sign.
Buoygues, the current parent of UiE, had given up hope of winning any more offshore business, two and a half years after the last contract - fitting out the oil production ship Bleo Holm for North Sea duty - was completed and the workforce paid off.
During the last phase of activity in the mid-1990s, UiE employed more than 3,000 fitting out Bleo Holm and another production vessel. Part of the former Scott Lithgow Shipyard was leased at that time to cope with overspill work.
Assuming Buoygues achieves a successful sale of the site, strategically to be renamed Queen’s Wharf in honour of the great John Brown trio, it will become part of the Clydebank Quays development, which Scottish Enterprise Dumbartonshire claims will bring 6,000 jobs to Clydeside and make a huge contribution to local urban regeneration.
But these will be mostly service, not manufacturing jobs - which is what shipbuilding and offshore fabrication are about.
Like most manufacturing in Britain, shipbuilding has been in decline for decades, and offshore fabrication has become a short-lived 30 to 40-year phenomenon.
As UiE’s managing director, Brian Divers, said yesterday: "The market does not justify our keeping the yard open.
"Of course it is sad to see the end of an era, but in a changing world we believe there can be a wonderful future for the site, which can exploit its riverfront location and excellent transport links."
The closure of UiE marks the end of offshore fabrication on the west side of Scotland. All other "Westside" oil yards - Kishorn, Ardyne Point, Lewis Offshore and Hunterston - are shut. One, known as Portavadie, on Loch Fyne never built a platform at all.
The only remnants left of this industry in Scotland are the east coast yards: KBR at Nigg on the Cromarty Firth, McDermott at Ardersier, Kvaerner at Methil and Burntisland Fabricators. But all are either in mothballs or desperately short of work and Ardersier and Methil may soon shut.
Only a run of major platform contracts this winter and early next year can prevent final closure of either of these yards. Kvaerner still has several years to run on its lease. The McDermott situation is less clear. Of the large Scottish yards, only KBR at Nigg seems solidly placed to keep going for several years yet. At the height of the platform-building boom, the yards employed more than 20,000.
Reflecting on the UiE closure and the fabrication yard phenomenon, Scottish trade union leader Danny Carrigan, of the AEEU, said: "Three years ago, UiE must have had 3,000 to 4,000 working for them. Now it’s a sad loss to Clydeside and a sad loss to the oil construction industry.
"Four years ago there were 25,000 oil rig construction jobs in the UK. Now it’s about 4,000. The industry is on a downward spiral. The only bright spot is Amec, on the Tyne, which won a huge West Africa contract. I hope they win more of that sort of work, but none of it will bring the boom times back."
Carrigan added that whatever new oil platform construction work was put up for bid by oil companies in the UK, it was important to ensure the few remaining yards won the lion’s share of the work.
"The oil companies have had a bonanza over the last couple of years thanks to high oil prices and the government is well placed to twist their arms up their backs to make sure the contracts stay in Britain."