Lesley Riddoch: Scotland's vacant shipyards at crucial junction

Jobs-starved locals are battling to save Britain's biggest dry dock for industrial development, writes Lesley Riddoch
Govan Dry Docks, Glasgow.Govan Dry Docks, Glasgow.
Govan Dry Docks, Glasgow.

Many Scots cheered last week when industrial entrepreneur Jim McColl announced plans to bring Glasgow’s celebrated Graving Docks back into working life as a ship repair and maintenance base alongside a maritime museum “worthy of the shipbuilding heritage of Glasgow”. McColl said the project might create 50 ship repair jobs after an initial investment of around £10-£12 million before “growing substantially”.

The Graving Docks, which have lain derelict for 30 years, contain three basins, the largest of which could handle ships on the scale of the Titanic.

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Fifty jobs may not be a lot but any renewal of the Clyde’s craft and shipbuilding traditions is big and symbolically important at a time when the Scottish economy is sluggish and the business of actually making things in Britain seems to have become a lost art.

There is of course the minor snag that the docks are owned by New City Vision, which plans to build 800 homes, a heritage centre, hotel, restaurant, shops and offices. Furthermore, land round the Graving Docks is zoned for housing, not industrial use. But Glasgow Council’s response to McColl’s plans, welcoming “any proposal that could continue the regeneration of the Clyde”, suggests these obstacles might somehow be overcome.

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Controversial housing plans move forward for Govan Graving Docks

The great shame is that the prospect of an industrial renaissance at Govan may sound the death-knell for another yard – the Inchgreen Dry Dock at Greenock. Inchgreen is the biggest dry dock in Britain, designed to repair ships as big as the QE2 and opened in the early 1960s at a cost of more than £4m (£90m today). But the yard has been virtually mothballed by owners Peel Ports and was listed on the Scottish Vacant and Derelict Land Register for the last five years. Peel Ports is owned by the Peel Group, which owns eight dry docks in Birkenhead, Falmouth, Tyneside and Teesside. Its parent companies are registered in the Isle of Man and the Cayman Islands – both tax havens. This summer Peel Ports demolished the cranes on Inchgreen quayside, claiming they were too costly to service and maintain. Locals believe that, after 15 investment-free years, Peel Ports will now sell the surrounding land for housing.

If so, it’s a tragedy.

In 2015, one year after rescuing Ferguson Marine, McColl scouted Inchgreen as a way to expand capacity beyond his smaller Port Glasgow yard. Apparently Peel Ports offered a lease rather than a sale, prompting McColl to walk away because of the investment needed to restore Inchgreen to working order.

According to Inverclyde’s SNP MP Ronnie Cowan: “Ferguson Marine is located in Port Glasgow. Within one mile is Inchgreen Dry Dock. I know it’s the perfect site for Ferguson Marine’s ambitious plans and yet two years after I sat down with Ferguson Marine and Peel Ports, Jim McColl is still being forced to look elsewhere and Peel Ports have done nothing with the site. Peel Ports have always been available to talk and backed up with City Deal money, they are committed to expanding their dock facilities at the Ocean Terminal in Greenock. My frustration, bordering on anger, is that a first-class facility like Inchgreen has been underused. Major companies sometimes move slower than I would like. They have a duty to protect their existing workforce and many a company has suffered by expanding too quickly. But Peel Ports don’t fall into that category. They have spent £750m on Liverpool, they are a massive worldwide organisation and yet Inchgreen has effectively been mothballed. If Peel Ports can’t commit publicly to a long-term future, they should step aside and let Jim McColl do the job.”

Local campaigners are determined to take things further. Retired union official Robert Buirds has formed the Campaign to Save Inchgreen Dry Dock, which is combing the new Land Reform Act for mechanisms to force a sale. Buirds believes the Peel Group has no incentive to reopen the yard and create competition with its other dry docks: “The Peel Group’s investment strategy is totally focused on its £50 billion Ocean Gate Project and the millions invested in Cammell Laird. We need the Scottish Government to help us secure ownership of Inchgreen for industrial development and the prosperity of Inverclyde.”

This may be possible – if Scottish civil servants act quickly. New community rights to buy abandoned and neglected land are due to be enacted next year, but while a community bid would demonstrate public benefit and sustainability (from the jobs and training opportunities created), it would be hard for a community body to buy the land and pass it onto a private company like Ferguson Marine.

The more promising mechanism is the compulsory sale order, which allows communities to make councils force a sale of any asset that’s been vacant or derelict for three years or more – and manage that auction. This is less burdensome than the compulsory purchase order, which forces councils to shell out and buy underused assets. The CSO will simply empower them to trigger a sale and the community (or McColl) may be the highest bidder. The Scottish Land Fund has already backed one community auction bid, so there is a precedent. The only snag is the parliamentary timetable for the CSO seems to have slipped from 2018-19. If that’s true, Inchgreen’s revival will probably also slip from community hands.

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Of course, there’s a chance Peel Ports will act. A spokesperson said: “We remain fully committed to developing Inchgreen for port-related uses and are in discussion with interested parties. Peel Ports Group has no plans to sell Inchgreen.”

Maybe so. But the jobs and hope-starved people of Inverclyde have definite plans to buy. Peel Ports may eventually invest in Inchgreen but it may not. Should the economic health of Inverclyde hang solely on that decision? Will land reform legislation come to the rescue in time? Has McColl given up on Inchgreen?

Either way, 2018 will be a big year for Govan – and Inverclyde.