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A sea change is needed for government to fulfil shipbuilding promises

A sea change is needed for government to fulfil shipbuilding promises
4 min read

British shipbuilding does not have to be a story of the past, it can be a story for tomorrow. And it can be one of an exciting, high tech and high skilled future for our coastal communities.

Britain once made more ships than anyone else, and we made them better. So when the Prime Minister says he wants to “bring shipbuilding back home”, we need to see real ambition. Not to go back to the past, but to lead the green, digital and AI powered tides of the future. 

In weeks we will see what the government has come up with, in the form of its National Shipbuilding Strategy. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, with our post-pandemic and post-Brexit economic future, livelihoods of our coastal communities, and the country’s climate change ambitions all being in the same boat.

The first thing we need is for government to turn the tide on its financial backing. All of the most successful shipbuilding countries today, from China to Norway, have one thing in common: major government subsidy or financial support.

If the government decides not to level this playing field, then it will not only be turning its back on our shipbuilders, but on all those whose livelihoods depend on them, often far away from the yards. 

This includes those developing the fuels, the electronics, the safety systems, the propulsion systems, and all the supplies and services that transform a hull, into a modern ship. Britain’s shipyards directly employ 29,000 people, but once you include their supply chains, this number increases to 82,000.

The simple choice for government is this: does it want a thriving shipbuilding industry at home, or does it want it abroad?

The government already provides vital financial support to our car and aerospace industries, with research and development grants valued at the hundreds of millions. This compares to a fund of just £3 million for commercial UK maritime last year. This can’t continue, and government should also do more to attract private sector investment in the sector by backing home-shipbuilding credit guarantees and loans.

But the investment can’t stop there, for shipbuilding will be central to one of our government’s most ambitious targets: reaching net zero by 2050. We won’t get there without decarbonising shipping. This is, however, a journey that government and industry must take together. 

While the government recognises this, putting maritime in its ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution as an ‘industry difficult to decarbonise’, this only involves a £20m competition - a fraction of what we need to steer our ships in a green direction.

To develop the net zero solutions of the future, such as hydrogen fuels and electric propulsion systems, and the electric charging points to power them, the sector needs a much greater sum - £1billion. This would send a signal to the world about our climate leadership ambitions ahead of COP26, while seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the UK a green shipbuilding superpower.

It’s no surprise that an island nation with a proud maritime heritage is already pioneering in this area, with the likes of Windship Technology developing designs for a zero-emission ship, powered by solar panels and sails inspired by aircraft wings, with carbon capture technology on board. 

So, let’s unleash this potential and take the lion’s share of the global market in emission reduction technologies, predicted be worth $15 billion by 2050.

All of this would benefit our left behind coastal communities the most, with a £1billion investment in decarbonisation creating an estimated 73,600 jobs, while putting our shores on course to lead the green industrial revolution. 

Every time a government contract for a new ship goes abroad, an opportunity to spur jobs and growth in our coastal communities is lost. For a government committed for ‘levelling-up’ our country, the obvious solution is to ensure its pipeline of orders are in the capable hands of UK plc as far as possible. 

The simple choice for government is this: does it want a thriving shipbuilding industry at home, or does it want it abroad?

This is the first step, but more can still be done to ensure we are making the most of the new opportunities on the horizon.

Maritime UK’s shipbuilding manifesto, launched last month, includes proposals to support a research and development strategy that backs UK-owned intellectual properties, and developing the homegrown skills we need for our yards. 

British shipbuilding does not have to be a story of the past, it can be a story for tomorrow. Where we build the best warships, the most advanced commercial vessels, alongside the Teslas of the seas. And it can be one of an exciting, high tech and high skilled future for our coastal communities. 

The government has promised this ‘shipbuilding renaissance’, but after years of waiting, we now need to see all hands-on deck. 

 

Kevan Jones is the Labour MP for North Durham and chair of the APPG for Shipbuilding.

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