Boris Johnson should hand a £1.5billion contract to build Royal Navy supply ships to British firms if he is serious about “levelling up”, MPs were warned tonight.
The Prime Minister has pledged to tackle the wealth gulf between communities after winning former Labour strongholds at last December’s election.
Union chiefs and local leaders urged him to repay voters’ faith by committing to build three Fleet Solid Support vessels in the UK – and snub bids from foreign rivals.
Plymouth Council boss Tudor Evans told the Commons Defence Select Committee: “If ‘levelling up’ is to work we need to make sure that work that’s currently intended to go abroad doesn’t go abroad but is used to back UK shipbuilding.
“There are skills here, talent here, steel here, there’s passion here.
“We should be using our UK tax pounds to shore up these yards and to give them a brighter future.”
The 40,000-tonne vessels will resupply Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates with food, ammunition and explosives.
For national security reasons, Royal Navy warships can only be built in the UK.
But because the supply ships will be part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, they are not classed as warships – meaning they can be built abroad.
The competition for the contract was initially offered worldwide, with companies from Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea shortlisted, along with a UK consortium.
The British team, backed by the Keep Britain Afloat campaign, includes Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce.
The tendering process was halted suddenly in November – raising hopes the terms could be reset to boost British firms’ chances of winning the deal.
At least 2,500 skilled, well-paid jobs would be secured by keeping the contract in Britain, campaigners say.
But last month, the Ministry of Defence triggered fresh dismay when foreign firms were invited to take part in early plans to build the vessels.
GMB national officer for shipbuilding Ross Murdoch said: “In terms of the impact on UK shipbuilding if the contract was to go to an overseas company, it would be extremely serious.
“FSS is really the only game in town, FSS really is the big ticket item for the members we represent.”
Warning of potential devastation to British shipbuilding heartlands if the contract was awarded to a foreign bidder, he added: “If the order is not placed in the UK then the fear will be that we go back to the ‘feast and famine’ investment cycle.
“That’s always been accompanied by painful job losses, including in the supply chain.
“UK companies will always be less likely to bid in the future if they think they cannot compete fairly with overseas bidders.
“You really can’t overstate the negative impact of job losses. Study after study has shown that many workers who are made redundant, they don’t find alternative work that is as well-paid or as satisfying.
“Older workers in particular find it difficult to remain in the labour market.
“Many redundant workers experience poor mental and physical health.”
Unite’s national officer for shipbuilding Rhys McCarthy said where to place the contract had become “a litmus test” for ministers.
Prospect union deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “The issue of FSS has become totemic in people’s eyes.
“We see other European nations, other major defence nations around the world – I can’t imagine them making a similar decision to potentially send FSS construction abroad.
“I think it is economically and industrially illiterate.”
Urging the Government to speed-up the process, committee chairman Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative former Defence Minister, said: “The delay itself must be costing the MoD a lot of money for failing to make the decision.
“These are required and (not having them is) putting strains on the existing capabilities and are needed in service.”
An MoD spokeswoman said previously: “We continue work on the procurement strategy for the Fleet Solid Support ships and will provide further details when the current stage is completed.”