EXCLUSIVE: Ben Murray of Maritime UK said the contract for the Fleet Solid Support vessels should stay on British shores
A top maritime industry chief tonight throws his weight behind calls for new Royal Navy supply vessels to be built in Britain.
Pressure is mounting on ministers to award the £1.5billion deal for three Fleet Solid Support ships to a UK consortium.
At least 2,500 skilled, well-paid jobs would be secured by keeping the contract in Britain, campaigners say.
Joining the fight, Maritime UK director Ben Murray told the Mirror the Government should snub cheaper bids from foreign firms.
Highlighting Boris Johnson’s promise to “level-up”, he said: “We certainly feel there is no better tool or way of making real this ‘levelling up’ commitment than supporting the shipbuilding industry.
“We all know where they are – they are in port towns and cities around the country that have been ‘left behind’.
“It is an industry that is old and has supported lots of jobs in these places.
“The shipbuilding industry certainly does need a stimulus – the best way of doing that would be to build these ships here.”
The 40,000-tonne vessels will resupply Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates with food, ammunition and explosives.
For national security reasons, Royal Navy warships can only be built in the UK.
But because the supply ships will be part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, they are not classed as warships – meaning they can be built abroad.
The competition for the contract was initially offered worldwide, with companies from Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea shortlisted, along with a UK consortium.
The British team, backed by the Keep Britain Afloat campaign, includes Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce.
The tendering process was halted suddenly in November – raising hopes the terms could be reset to boost British firms’ chances of winning the deal.
But earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence triggered fresh dismay when foreign firms were invited to take part in early plans to build the vessels.
Mr Murray called for the design, building and fitting-out phases to take place on these shores – boosting employment in the supply chain.
He blamed the Government’s “acquisition strategy” for chasing cheaper ships as the main block to a British deal – and for jeopardising UK jobs.
“It prioritises lower cap-ex (capital expenditure),” he said.
“Particularly coming out of Covid, we need to stimulate economic activity.
“The best way of doing that is to think, ‘What is the medium and long-term implication of any intervention?’
“If you invest X-amount here it might be comparatively quite a bit more expensive in the short term.
“But the overall spill over and wider supply chain benefit is significant.
“You’re going to have fewer people unemployed because it creates jobs, you’re going to have more companies on this project – and the real magic is when a skills’ base is developed and companies become more competitive because they have learned new techniques and they have built new relationships.
“They can go out and compete.
“All of that you don’t have if you only look at the lowest cost – and the lowest cost means you’re not going to be doing it in this country.
“The MoD and Treasury have got to recognise that things have changed.
“Covid has decimated coastal communities and large parts of the economy, so look at all the levers the Government has to support the recovery and support big industries that we have a tradition in.”
Labour has stepped up its battle for the vessels to be constructed in the UK, as the Government prepares to reissue the tender.
A petition at https://action.labour.org.uk/page/s/royalnavyships says: “For five years, the Tory Government has dithered over Navy supply ships when it’s a no-brainer to build these vital new ships in Britain.
“They are selling Britain short by not putting the work into UK shipyards.
“These ships are the cornerstone for the future of shipbuilding in this country.”
Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said: “We’re now taking the ‘Build in Britain’ campaign to the shipyard workers, their families and the local areas across the UK that stand to gain if ministers make sure these ships are built in Britain.
“I think people are strongly behind us in wanting Britain’s naval ships built by British workers in British shipyards.
“No other major military nation has ordered naval support ships from foreign yards.
“What can be built in Britain, must be built in Britain.
“It’s a win-win-win to boost our British jobs, manufacturing strength and national self-reliance/resilience.”
Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’ general secretary Ian Waddell said: “These ships will support our carrier strike force in combat situations.
“They should be designed, built and maintained in Britain.
“FSS will pump £1.3bn into our regional economies, safeguarding thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs, create 2,500 new jobs and get the economy back up and running by making sure wages are spent in local shops.
“It is utterly absurd that this Government should even consider building these ships in overseas shipyards using taxpayer’s money.
“Sign the petition and send a strong message to the Prime Minister that these ships should be built in Britain using British skills and British steel.”
An MoD spokeswoman said last week: “Defence is incredibly well placed to support the Government’s building agenda, with our investment providing not only first-class equipment, but securing homegrown skills, opportunities and more than 300,000 jobs directly and indirectly right across the UK.
“We continue work on the procurement strategy for the Fleet Solid Support ships and will provide further details when the current stage is completed.”