Meltdown in manufacturing

North Derbyshire's manufacturing industry has been dealt another hammer blow with the closure of one of its oldest and most famous factories.

GKN Sheepbridge Stokes Ltd will close its doors for the last time in September marking the end of a spell which has seen manufacturing and business in the region collapse over six years with thousands of job losses.

Jon Cooper reports

Proud north Derbyshire workers have enjoyed global fame and success with quality manufacturing, helping to power world industry.

The region has left a mark and a lasting legacy with engineering products and workmanship copied by other countries – although rarely equalled.

But former world leaders like GKN Sheepbridge works, which makes cylinder liners for the automotive industry, have became a victim of the global success – with bosses attracted to cheaper markets and lower costs abroad.

GKN has announced plans to close their Sheepbridge works, on Sheepbridge Lane, with a loss of 420 jobs.

A Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce spokesman said: "The loss of 420 jobs at GKN Sheepbridge has underlined our concern for manufacturing in the area and the county as a whole.

"The company has operated at the Sheepbridge site since the 1970s and points to costs as the chief reason for its decision, with production swinging to China.

"GKN has promised support for its workforce during the closure and I just hope we can attract another employer here soon or we will have yet another brownfield site lying vacant."

Companies have been struggling to attract customers, shutting down or setting up ventures overseas, leaving the area's business experts and council bosses to forge regeneration plans.

David Merifield, Derbyshire Chamber president, said: "My concern is that Chesterfield does not become a 'brownfield town' surrounded by acres of industrial dereliction.

"The reason for the decline, particularly of heavy manufacturing, is cost – if it can be produced elsewhere for less, it will be. This is a fact of global competition."

Nev Jackson, regional secretary of trade union Amicus, which is representing GKN Sheepbridge workers, said: "The East Midlands has either lost or announced the loss of 1,200 or more jobs in the last eight weeks.

"Many companies are looking to set up abroad in countries like India, China and Brazil and we can't compete with their wage rights.

"European Union country members don't have to comply with the same environmental requirements and we feel this is unsatisfactory.

"We're losing highly skilled individuals without offering them satisfactory redeployment and jobs.

"So we're asking the Government why Europe is able to maintain manufacturing jobs, but in the UK we allow workers to be dismissed cheaply."

Worcestershire-based GKN plc has factories in over 30 countries with about 40,000 employees. It aims to sell the Sheepbridge site.

Peter Baillie, GKN director of corporate communications said: "Sheepbridge had been trading with losses for several years when production was previously transferred last year to China with 300 job losses.

"We transferred production at a lower cost to help maintain Sheepbridge but market conditions meant it didn't improve and we've been left with no choice.''

Ian Harrison, East Midland Development Agency's economic development chief, said: "It's tragic for workers but this is a commercial decision because GKN's a global business looking at cost-effective production.

"The question is whether manufacturing can be maintained here and across the country with tough and real competition from overseas."

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The demise of manufacturing in the area is being met by multi-million pound regeneration plans with the prospect of new and different types of industry.

The 62m Markham Vale Employment Growth Zone at the former coalfield sites and new M1 motorway link aims to create 5,000 new jobs, with plans for office, industrial and warehouse development.

President David Merifield, of Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on business issues, said: "We must make areas attractive to business and we support the efforts of Derbyshire County Council and other local authorities.

"We provide training with firms and organisations like Chesterfield College and there's Business Link Derbyshire for those wanting to start business and a network of innovation and advice centres.

"The foundations for a new economy are being built with major plans for regeneration."

Plans have been agreed for developers Maximus to transform the derelict Biwater works site, near Derby Road, Clay Cross, with housing and plans for manufacturing, distribution and businesses.

A new 7m manufacturing base is being developed on the Holmewood Industrial Park by insulation company Xtratherm with new jobs and the development was backed by a 1m EMDA grant.

More jobs were also expected to be created on the neighbouring Holmewood Business Park after the launch of more purpose-built units as part of a 2.2m development.

Nev Jackson, Amicus union regional secretary, said: "We've seen one or two bright spots with companies who are investing in technology."

EMDA has set up the Midlands Engineering Industries Redeployment Group which supports redundant workers by training and transferring skilled individuals between engineering companies.

Ian Harrison, EMDA economic chief, said: "We're shortly announcing, with the Secretary of State for Industry, a new role for the manufacturing advisory service, to adopt new production processes and look into maintaining a manufacturing base."

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A council boss has described the proposed closure of Sheepbridge works as a blow to the region's troubled manufacturing base.

Chesterfield Borough Council leader Ray Russell said: "What's happened at Sheepbridge is a significant blow to the town and follows significant job losses last year at GKN.

"It's one of our last traditional large-scale manufacturing bases and it's a big blow for families and workers. As a council we'll be working with other agencies to support those under threat and help mitigate the impact."

Workers have been left devastated by the proposed closure of one of the biggest and oldest manufacturing bases in north Derbyshire.

One employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "We've been making castings and because China was not up and running we were selling them at Chinese prices and subsidising their operation at a loss to ourselves.

"So it was inevitable we would end up running at a loss and this is why we've gone under. We trained up the Chinese and now they're taking our jobs."

The site has had a manufacturing base since the 19th century and former owners Sheepbridge Engineering Ltd boasted 2,000 employees in Chesterfield during the 1970s before GKN took over in 1979.

Retired Sheepbridge employee David Cory, of Tapton Terrace, Chesterfield, said: "My dad worked at Sheepbridge, I worked there and my son works there ... so it's the end of an era.

"My heart bleeds because this has to be the end of Chesterfield manufacturing and we're becoming the capital of unemployment."