BiFab and Beyond
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?