500-year-old shipyard, home of the Royal Navy, to shut

Workers leave the BAE Systems building in Glasgow, Scotland, after hearing news about job cuts at the defence giant. BAE Systems announced Wednesday plans to cut some 1,775 jobs at three shipyards, ending the building of warships in England once current work is completed on two aircraft carriers in 2015.
Workers leave the BAE Systems building in Glasgow, Scotland, after hearing news about job cuts at the defence giant. BAE Systems announced Wednesday plans to cut some 1,775 jobs at three shipyards, ending the building of warships in England once current work is completed on two aircraft carriers in 2015. AP Photo

London - For five centuries, since the time of the Tudors, the shipyard in Portsmouth, England, built warships that helped Britain rule the waves and create an empire. On Wednesday, the yard's workers learned the site will be shut.

BAE Systems, Britain's largest military shipbuilder, announced a restructuring plan that will cut 1,775 jobs. Portsmouth, the home of the Royal Navy's command, will be hit hardest and stop building military ships altogether. Shipyards Glasgow and Rosyth in Scotland will face fewer cuts.

The decision was all the more charged because Scotland, where all of Britain's military shipbuilding will be concentrated, will vote next year on whether to become independent.

Portsmouth took the news hard. The move was a psychological blow to the seaside community that has long plied its fortunes beside the navy and alongside the water. Hundreds of high-paying, skilled jobs are not simple to replace, particularly in a time of economic troubles.

"We're an island nation," said Gerald Vernon-Jackson, a local government leader in Portsmouth. "We depend on sea trade for the food we eat, for the fuel in our cars. If we don't have a navy to make sure the sea lanes stay open, the country's economy will collapse."

Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, who broke the news of the cuts to Parliament, said there was no getting around the fact that times had changed. Shipbuilding is an increasingly competitive market, particularly in the military sector, where governments are cutting down on procurement costs.

It is simply a "fantasy" to think that Britain's ship builders could experience a renaissance, he said.

The decision to close the Portsmouth yard also reflects the country's fading connection to the sea. The rise of container ships concentrated in a few large ports has decreased the visibility of commerce by sea.

Robert Blyth, a senior curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, called it "sea blindness."

"We're a very urban population. The major ports have moved away from the major cities. The mass movement of goods that still goes on through shipping is somewhat invisible," he said.

Even so, unlike factories, or call centers or other major employers, shipyard cuts are talked about for a generation, said Guy Anderson, an analyst for Jane's Defence Industry.

He said the shipyards' troubles stemmed from their inability to deal with the fitful nature of the market. Orders for warships provide plenty of work, but only in bursts, followed by long stretches of inactivity for the yards.

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