BiFab and Beyond

We asked Jimmy Robertson, scaffolder at Bifab, Burntisland, to reflect on the BiFab victory and the challenges ahead.

How can it be that Methil is in the top 5% of the Scottish Index for Multiple Deprivation?

In 1883 the Denbeath pit was opened and until 1967 there was an average of 1900 people employed directly. Methil docks and the railway network were greatly expanded due to this which added to the population boom of skilled and unskilled workers.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 80s the colliery was gone but replaced with some of the mightiest steel structures that have been built by man. The oil boom had come to Methil and super-skilled men built vast structures to suck the prehistoric mud from beneath the seabed. It now seems that the oil and gas days are gone and we are in a new era of constructing offshore jackets for wind turbines for the generation of clean energy.

That was certainly the hope of the Bifab workforce until the stark reality of global capitalism struck. The company filed intent to go into administration and only a colossal joint effort of workforce, unions and government saved the yard and forced the multinational companies involved to come to a solution. A solution was found, but it is only temporary.

So how can an area that has been, and continues to be, so prolific in producing cutting edge engineering be so deprived?

Surely the availability of a skilled workforce will guarantee orders? Surely an abundance of natural resources on its doorstep would underwrite the new contracts? Surely having a strategic port with a deep water channel to the North Sea would be attractive for prospective clients? The answer is that none of these qualities can provide an assurance of long term work.

Along with the tired old story that global competition has smashed heavy industry in this country, under-investment and a lack of an overall strategy are the keys to understanding the plight of the Methil yard.

When the colliery was expanded around the early 1900s, a whole new town was built with a hospital, amenities and quality housing for the workforce. It was cutting edge as the pit baths were only the second in the U.K. to be installed. It is clearly evident that this far sighted initial investment stood the area in good stead and was a main factor in the colliery being a feasible business for so long.

In the early 70s a new investment was needed with giant workshops created and the old equipment of the colliery dismantled to clear space for oil-rig construction. Today the same facilities are used to build the jackets for the wind farms. The quality of the work is still world class but the yard is still stuck in the 1970s. Prospective clients bemoan the facilities and compare the yard with the new European and South Korean centres of excellence.

So how have we been left behind?

The landowner (who still owns the mining rights) had the land in his family for a registered 800 years, charged rent to the oil-rig construction firms until Scottish Enterprise acquired the site. Bifab now pay rent to Scottish Enterprise.

As things stand, Scottish Enterprise are probably getting as much rent as they can achieve from the land in its current state, therefore is it justifiable to invest millions in a time of austerity so that some shareholders can reap the benefits?; and what is the point of them investing in the site when it is going to greatly benefit a private company?

It is justifiable because history has proven that when investment is made in this part of the world, as in most others, prosperity and wealth follows. The point is to help the community as a direct by-product of the wealth created and alleviate the deprivation which is an embarrassment and a disgrace for an area of abundance.

The investment should be qualified and measured to bring long term success. This is why the strategy needs to be implemented with strong governmental decisions. Contracts that are of strategic importance to the nation, such as energy (wind and tidal) and oil-rig decommissioning need to be executed in Scottish yards. When I raise these points, it is commented that European laws prevent this kind of “protectionism”.

The answer lies in adopting the models of the Polish and Greek ship building industries and the French energy sector as well as countless other European examples. It’s time for the Scottish and U.K. governments to get creative in the way it can provide a future for us all. We need a strategy that can deliver short, medium and long term benefits, if not security.

A similar story exists in the two other Bifab yards in Burntisland and Lewis. There are also plenty other “barely surviving” futures we can use a comparable approach, such as tidal power.

Saving Bifab proved again that when communities and leaders have a common aim, huge adversaries can be overcome.

We need action to bring our facilities up to the standards of the communities that serves them. We want the tables turned and prospective clients visiting places around the world lamenting that it is not up to the standard of Methil. We want to be in a position to choose the companies that we deal with instead of rapacious and piratical firms taking our expertise on the cheap. We want ethical organisations to realise that a partnership with this community is mutually rewarding.

I believe the communities are ready to engage, but are the leaders able to see past short term fixes and look at getting to where we all want to be?

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  1. Wullie Brady says:

    Great piece from James Robertson That underlines the frustration felt by the workforce as a whole, who yearn for investment and a strategy to be put in place to give them a fair chance and a level playing field with the yards they are competing against in order to safeguard the yards future and the future of those local communities they support

  2. Wullie Brady says:

    Great piece from James Robertson That underlines the frustration felt by the workforce as a whole, who yearn for investment and a strategy to be put in place to give them a fair chance and a level playing field with the yards they are competing against in order to safeguard the yards future and the future of the local communities they support

  3. Clive Scott says:

    Just need to look across to the Clyde and see what Jim McColl has achieved at Fergusons. Investment made, yard substantially rebuilt, redundant employees from the previous Ferguson incarnation rehired and workforce now doubled. High tech ferry launched this week for Calmac with a second to be built. Zero coverage in MSM of course as this is a Scottish success story. Great front page pic in today’s National though.

  4. Willie says:

    The media blackout on the completion of the new ship at a refurbished Ferguson’s is an absolute disgrace.

    It brings into sharp focus the vicious vindictive forces that would destroy Scotland, her people and her industry in a an endeavour to retain Scotland in a corrupt United Kingdom.

    The forces of Unionism have been deploying this strategy for years to hobble the aspirations for a vibrant prosperous independent country – and Fergussons, together with this week’s media blackout on its successful restoration, is just another example.

    The saying made centruries ago in 1707 that “ now we have catch’d Scotland we shall hold her tight’ is as true today as it was then. But things can change if we make them change as Fergussons has shown.

    1. Rab Alexander says:

      Amen to that Willie, I hope that this sorry tale has a good ending but I doubt it,until Scottish people wise up that running our own affairs is the only way forward this will happen again,and again.
      End English Rule.

    2. Jamsie says:

      Media blackout???
      Which planet do you live on.
      The launch was extensively covered across all spectrums of the media.
      Wee Nicola made sure of that!!

      1. Willie says:

        Achieve it your goodself Jamesie.

        And how are you today Jamesie in your role as a Captain of Industry, NEC3 contract specialist, and daily awarder of subcontracts to the deserving.

        I see you forty years of experience now extends pejorative comments about the First Minister.

        A touch rattled your Greatness?

        So what think you about the Fergussons success story. Do you approve, have they done well, has the SG done well.

        Pray tell!

  5. Jamsie says:

    William
    From what I read in half a dozen newspapers, heard on four radio station news broadcasts and five television station news programmes a new boat was launched and will go into service late next year.
    Late might the operable word.
    What has this to do with the SG?
    Nowt!
    Just another excuse for publicity.
    When will we see her being filmed or photographed in her constituency where child sex exploitation and fly tipping in the streets is rife?

    1. 1314 says:

      ‘So what think you about the Fergussons success story. Do you approve, have they done well, has the SG done well.’

      I see you are reluctant to answer the ‘they’ part.

      Come on, say something good about Scotland, and say it without mentioning a political party.

      1. Jamsie says:

        Scotland is part of the United Kingdom.
        Scotland builds good ships as has been communicated by extensive media coverage.
        Even if they are running nine months late.
        Scotland being part of the UK is a great place to live.
        Unless of course you happen to live in Govanhill where the residents are continually making assertions that bad things are happening.
        There I said it!
        Happy now?
        Get real man.

        1. Roy Mackie says:

          Jamsie is of course, part of the problem, a man (I presume) with a closed mind who seems to think if it’s connected to the UK it has to be good, no question. He mentions Govanhill, only because it’s the constituency of Nicola Sturgeon, but what about every other constituency the length and breadth of the UK Jamsie, where food banks are the only thriving business, where poverty is rife, and growing, where the working poor are struggling to support the super rich, who seem to have an option on whether to pay tax or not. All under the watch of the UK Tory Government.

        2. David Allan says:

          “Scotland being part of the UK is a great place to live”.

          Perhaps you would care to elaborate and indicate what factors influenced that particular statement!

          1. Jamsie says:

            I really do wish you guys would keep up.
            On 26.9.17 Liam Furby wrote on the SNP website “95% of adults view their neighbourhood as a very or fairly good place to live.”
            I know there is a gap between very and fairly but how big that gap is I am not sure.
            But last time I checked Scotland was part of the UK.
            I wonder if Govanhill was actually included in this poll.
            There are certainly severe doubts that it is indeed still part of the UK.
            And as for a closed mind well I suggest that is the state of thinking on the part of the largest political minority in Scotland.

          2. David Allan says:

            You are of course taking the piss !

            On 26.9.17 Liam Furby wrote on the SNP website “95% of adults view their neighbourhood as a very or fairly good place to live.”

            Not sure what context Liam was referring to,yet your perceived interpretation / opinion projected that to mean –

            “Scotland being part of the UK is a great place to live”.

            An example of exaggerating to new levels.

            Your interpretation

  6. Willie says:

    No he still cannot answer 1314.

    A detractor, a spoiler, a curmudgeon, the exalted one cannot bring himself to compliment Fergussons and the Scottish Government.

    Aside however I wonder how many contract awards the Great One has placed his royal seal on today.

    1. Jamsie says:

      William
      If I was the sensitive type I would take it that you don’t like me.
      Diddums.
      When you have a credible point to make perhaps you will get a sensible answer.
      I won’t hold my breath for one!
      Jamsie xxx

  7. Josef Ó Luain says:

    The connection between investment and productivity is a glaringly obvious one. I remember all those small engineering shops in Glasgow in the 60’s with their Victorian belt-transmission systems, generational under-investment and decrepit machinery.

    Yet, many of the small-business people who owned those places would insist on driving around in the most expensive cars available. This, no doubt, while complaining about the competition from Germany, Scandinavia and the far-East.

    Why am I reminded, all these years later, of the family who sold the “uneconomical” Troon yard to Jim McCall?

  8. Alf Baird says:

    This is a timely article which is heading us in the right direction. However what Scotland requires is a robust and comprehensive National Maritime Policy, to make and then implement the “strong governmental decisions” necessary to make Scotland internationally competitive, and by necessity this means to rectify decades of public utility sell-offs, mismanagement, deregulation, and massive underinvestment in our key assets (e.g. seaports on Forth and Clyde and Tay), where much of this heavy engineering and trade and GDP occurs. Such a comprehensive Maritime Policy has been presented to the SNP leadership, but they have thus far chosen to do very little with it. This is why the current BiFab reprieve, and Ferguson’s apparent renaissance, can only be described as merely “temporary”. A return to public ownership, operation, and regulation of Scotland’s major seaports and their land is the key to economic growth – no nation can leave such important responsibilities in the hands of the Cayman and other offshore bankers.

    1. David Allan says:

      Common weal and others have produced loads of material on Industrial Strategy etc. The SNP are fire-fighting so many issues they have lost sight of the big picture and the case for independence is not being made.

      We will have a budget soon and the furore over the “tax paid” difference between England and Scotland will divert all attention to defending decisions made.

      This is what happens constantly being deflected by issues not communicated in a robust fashion from the outset.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    When the article says “when investment is made in this part of the world, as in most others, prosperity and wealth follows”, does this really reflect the harm done by the arms industry?

    Britain is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britain-is-now-the-second-biggest-arms-dealer-in-the-world-a7225351.html

    British arms sales to repressive regimes soar to £5bn since election
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/09/arms-sales-repressive-regimes-saudi-arabia

    Unions in Scotland and elsewhere have supported (as well as opposed) some of the most destructive forces to people’s well-being and prosperity on the planet. If children are to be used this argument, what about the children in places like Yemen and all the rest who have suffered to enrich British (including Scottish) industry?

    If the author of the article wants ethical companies, why not say whether the arms industry (which includes naval shipbuilding, arming and refitting, presumably) is a concern? Sometimes articles like these seem designed to generate wider support for an issue without really getting to the point where people will split on the more serious issues. Perhaps we need to get to that point.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunboat_diplomacy
    https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/companies

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