For the first time since RMS Titanic was under construction more than a century ago, the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast hosted three “sister” cruise ships at the same time this summer.
Although the repairs on the trio of Viking Cruises vessels were a far cry from the yard’s heyday as one of the world’s leading shipbuilders, it was evidence of life returning to the site in Northern Ireland, which had faced a bleak future until a year ago.
One of the best known names in marine engineering — famed as the builder of the doomed ocean liner along with two other Olympic-class vessels — was rescued from the threat of closure in 2019, by a little known UK-listed company with no previous links to shipbuilding.
Its new owner InfraStrata made more waves in August as it stepped in to buy the smaller Appledore facility in north Devon, one of the last major manufacturers in that part of south-west England before it closed two years ago.
“We intend these yards to be pioneering and at the forefront of regenerating British shipbuilding — not just in defence, but in the commercial market too,” said John Wood, the company’s chief executive.
The stakes go beyond reviving a source of local pride and jobs. Both deals tap into the ruling Conservative party’s pledge to “level up” regional economies outside London, which ministers hope will translate into post-Brexit prosperity — a priority all the more important following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Boris Johnson acknowledged this with a visit to Appledore when the £7m deal was announced. With characteristic bravado, the prime minister told the North Devon Gazette that the new chapter for the 165-year-old yard would help drive the UK’s ambitions “to become a shipbuilding superpower”.
InfraStrata’s more modest ambitions reflect the UK’s limited shipbuilding capabilities, which account for less than 0.01 per cent of global output, according to UN statistics. What remains of shipbuilding in the country is largely focused on defence work, concentrated at Scottish naval yards run by BAE Systems on the River Clyde and by Babcock International at Rosyth.
The company, which is listed on London’s Aim market with a market value of £25m, started out as an energy infrastructure specialist and aims to bring in work to both shipyards by diversifying beyond their core competence.
Although it plans to compete for shipbuilding contracts, it is also targeting the oil and gas sector and looking to use the fabrication skills for renewable energy projects and other areas of civil engineering.
“One of the reasons why shipyards in the UK and globally have failed in the past is because they concentrate really, solely on shipbuilding, for one particular sector,” said Mr Wood, who previously ran shipyards for BAE Systems in Australia.
“If one market takes a hit, the others will be buoyant. We are looking at a more sustainable model that is able to survive.”
Paul Stott, a naval architect and senior lecturer in engineering at Newcastle University, said diversification made sense given the volatile nature of shipbuilding, which is marked by fluctuating demand and low profitability.
“[Shipbuilding] is technically very difficult, but the real problem is economic. It’s the most difficult of any sector. The trick is trying to make money — and that’s as difficult as it ever was and probably ever will be.”
Despite winning plaudits for its naval work, Appledore was closed by Babcock in 2018 after failing to secure enough orders. InfraStrata said the smaller Devon yard with its undercover dry dock complements the much larger Harland & Wolff site whose twin gantry cranes Samson and Goliath tower over the Belfast skyline.
Although the Northern Ireland facility is much diminished from its peak, when it employed 35,000 workers, it still has the second-biggest dry dock in Europe.
Since the £6m takeover, its workforce has risen from 60 to about 200, including contractors, with activity ranging from repairs and painting to propeller removal and pipework.
Remedial work is under way at Appledore with a view to reopening early next year. Heathcliffe Pettifer, an officer with the Unite union who worked there for nearly 20 years, said the yard was known for specialised capabilities such as complex metal plate shaping.
But he warned that its 200 former employees may be reluctant to rejoin unless the yard can demonstrate a strong order book. “Even if the pay isn’t quite as good, if you’re in a builders’ merchant or a supermarket you’ve got that job security and that’s all important in these times.”
Despite its diversification strategy, InfraStrata is hoping to tap defence and other government contracts. Mr Wood said the need to secure the UK’s waters offers opportunities to build so-called sovereign ships, such as fishery protection and border patrol vessels.
The first test will come when it joins UK designer BMT and the Spanish shipbuilder, Navantia in bidding for a £1.5bn contract to build three support ships for the Royal Navy next year. Following a campaign by unions and MPs to stop the work going abroad, the Ministry of Defence has promised to ensure it is awarded to a British-led team.
At the very least if it loses to a rival consortium that includes BAE Systems, InfraStrata could still secure some subcontracting work.
A government-commissioned review into naval shipbuilding by the industrialist John Parker in 2016 recommended that work on larger vessels should be spread out among a bigger group of contractors.
“Shipbuilding at the end of the day is a very political game,” said Sir John, who apprenticed at Harland & Wolff before going on to serve as director at some of the UK’s biggest companies. “You do need to have political support through the tough times.”
As the UK forges ahead with its future outside the EU, the new owner of the two shipyards will hope the backing is there.