Darren Barber’s father came to Derby for work more than 30 years ago, driven southwards by the closing of the steel mills in Sheffield, England. Darren followed him into a skilled trade, joining the train industry as an electrician. Now the axe hangs over the Bombardier plant that employs him and he wonders where he could go next.
“They only take contractors at Rolls,” says Mr. Barber, 43, proudly wearing his black Bombardier T-shirt. “I have a pension and health benefits here I’d not get anywhere else,” conditions that are crucial to him with a fourth child on the way.
His son Anthony, 26, a contractor at the plant, is almost certain to lose his job, and Mr. Barber fears he could be next. The British government’s decision to award a £1.6-billion ($2.57-billion Canadian) contract for Thameslink trains to Siemens of Germany has left the city reeling. Bombardier has warned 1,400 workers to prepare for redundancy and is reviewing the future of the plant, Britain’s last train maker, with 3,000 workers in all.
“We do not want to become the next Washwood Heath,” says another worker, Steve Gregory, in a reference to a Birmingham suburb that is a byword for industrial decline and deprivation.
So there may be rare camaraderie on the terraces Saturday as Derby County Football Club takes to the field against Birmingham City. The team will train in shirts emblazoned “Save our rail industry,” and workers from the factory will parade with banners before an expected crowd of 30,000.
Nigel Clough, the manager and a life-long Derby resident, called the decision a “tragedy” in his program notes. “We as a club are standing shoulder to shoulder with the workers at Bombardier and the workers at their many suppliers in the Derby area,” he said.
Tom Glick, the chief executive and an unsentimental American, told the Financial Times it was a simple decision to back Bombardier, a club partner. “This is so transformational: the end of an entire industry in this country. This has unified the city: employers, management, Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This football club is at the heart of the city. One in 12 of the population is here for matches. We feel a responsibility to reflect what people are feeling.”
The rail sector accounts for almost a fifth of the city’s economic output, according to a 2009 report commissioned by the city council. It generates £2.6-billion a year and employs 5,010 people with 3,500 jobs supported indirectly. Only aerospace, with Rolls-Royce alone employing more than 10,000, and car making – centred around Toyota – are more significant.
The collateral damage is already becoming clear. A survey released this week found that four companies that supply Bombardier could close and more than 1,100 jobs would be lost in the supply chain. Derby and Derbyshire Rail Forum (DDRF), which represents businesses across the East Midlands, found that 18 of the 39 companies that responded said they would be affected.
Elisa Fois, an Italian who runs the Wayfarer café next to the plant with her sister, said workers provided a good chunk of their business. “We are very worried. Do you know what will happen?”
It is a question no one outside Whitehall can answer. Only a year ago the cabinet met in Derby to demonstrate its commitment to rebalancing the economy away from London and the financial services industry. Chris Williamson, a local Labour MP, has gathered 50,000 signatures on a petition calling for it to be reversed.
Philip Hickson, the Conservative and council leader in the city, has written to David Cameron, accusing him of “hiding behind a number of myths about legalities.”
The Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire chamber of commerce has been lobbying hard, demanding the Department for Transport make public its “value for money” calculations.
Rupert Brennan Brown, the DDRF’s spokesman, said the government had been surprised by the backlash. It has sought to blame procurement rules drawn up by the previous Labour government and says it is constrained by European Union rules, which does allow for social considerations.
With the transport select committee of parliament examining the deal in public hearings on September 7, lobbying could pay off, he says. “Philip Hammond can’t get away with saying he just opened an envelope. If he doesn’t have any power what is he doing there?”
The hope is that even if the Thameslink decision is not reversed other work such as new Crossrail trains or diesels for the congested north could be sent to Derby.
Those with longer memories also cling on to hope. In 1971 Rolls-Royce was on the brink of collapse. Ted Heath, then Conservative prime minister, nationalized the company, now respected worldwide. Derby County’s manager at the time, who vocally backed the campaign, was Brian Clough, Nigel’s father. A year later, in 1972, they even won the league title.