When the Falklands crisis
was over, MOD had a serious rethink about the John Nott strategy. Among
very many lessons, it was decided that the civilian workforce at
Portsmouth needed to be a bit larger than previously thought. The
enormous potential was also seen for closer integration of uniformed and
civilian labour and some groundbreaking agreements were negotiated with
Trade Unions concerning flexibility and working practices. When the FMRO
was formally established in October 1984, civilian numbers were pegged
at 2800 rather than the 1800 previously set.
However the settlement for the Dockyards was to be short-lived!
Thatcherism had now arrived and for the MOD was personified in the form
of Mr Peter Levene. Not for him the sort of prolonged inquiries which
had served previously to avoid dramatic change in the dockyards. In a
few short pages, he recommended the introduction of commercial
management by a company appointed for a 7-year term contract. But when
this arrangement was implemented at Devonport and Rosyth in 1987,
Portsmouth was left out! There were several reasons, one of which was
that the Navy Board wished to preserve a banker on which it could rely
if things went awry elsewhere!
Thus for about another 10 years, Portsmouth continued to retain the one
remaining government operated repair yard for surface warships. The FMRO
enjoyed some remarkable successes – for example its performance in
completing Type 42 class destroyer refits within the time agreed at the
start, the actual times taken, and the standards achieved, made the
performance of the two contractorised yards look almost shambolic.
But Thatcherism was not to be thwarted! Continuation of an executive
operation such as a dockyard within the government sector was anathema.
And a new managerial device was conceived to ease it out. A policy of
“Market–Testing” (the central government equivalent of local government
“Compulsory Competitive Tendering”) was implemented, and to do so it was
necessary to reverse the previous and successful policy of integrating
naval and civilian workforces in the yard. Much work was needed to
construct a tender package that would be attractive to serious bidders.
The total naval programme had reduced so much that decline in work at
the other two yards threatened the viability of their operating
companies which were intended at the same time for full privatisation!
There were endless delays and just as a contract was set to be awarded
to the winning consortium, Prime Minister John Major called a general
But in April 1998, contractorisation was at last implemented at
Portsmouth. The successful bidder (Fleet Support Limited or FSL) is a
consortium is between GEC (now Marconi) and Vosper Thornycroft. Some of
the continuing refit programmes which were presently allocated to
Devonport and Rosyth Dockyards may now be open to full competitive
tender and FSL could be in a strong position to compete at least for
Portsmouth-based ships which the yard would regard as its own. Company
policy is also to attract more commercial work.
However changes continue in political stance, commercial pressures and
technology. Perhaps the most significant recent development has been the
decision by Vosper Thornycroft (VT) to transfer its shipbuilding
facilities from Southampton into the Dockyard where No 13 has been
converted into a covered building facility. The years of isolationism of
the Dockyard described earlier may have at last been ended. 2400 years
is a long time – who can tell what the next millennium will bring – but
the fundamental geographical features of Portsmouth Harbour and the
“can-do” attitude of Portsmouthians will surely remain to ensure the
future of “The Yard”.