An interesting position was posted on the Gov.UK Civil Service Jobs page at the beginning of August.
Acknowledging that “the UK has major capabilities in naval shipbuilding”, the preamble goes on to
observe that “The National Shipbuilding Strategy exists to secure the future of the UK’s shipbuilding
capability.” In the new role, the Maritime Sector Senior Shipbuilding Strategy Manager will deliver a
strategy for exports of commercial vessels, promote commercial shipbuilding in the UK and focus on
selling the UK offer to a global market.
Good news for UK shipbuilding.
This echoes the promises made by the Prime Minister who has pledged to bring shipbuilding back to
the UK. Whilst the thrust of his promise centred around vessels for the Royal Navy, in particular the
Type 31e Frigate, the Government has emphasised a commitment to realising the UK as a world
leader in commercial shipbuilding, particularly in cruise ships, ferries and yachts. Whilst the cruise
sector has suffered a major setback due to the coronavirus epidemic, the potential for ferries, yachts
and indeed, bespoke Expedition Cruise vessels, is still very much alive.
UK commercial shipbuilding has struggled to be competitive in a global market. There are few
commercial shipyards with the experience and capability to compete with well–established and often
government–subsidised shipbuilders in countries such as Turkey, Korea, and China. It is difficult to
maintain a skills base against a small number of newbuild orders. Investment stalls as prospects
However, all is not gloom and despair. Cammell Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard has recently delivered a
highly efficient freight ferry for UK owner Red Funnel. The ‘Red Kestrel’ was designed in–house and
the project was largely delivered by a young and very capable team. The project used the services of
45 British supply chain businesses and involved thousands of man–hours of work for shipyard
The Polar Research Vessel RRS ‘Sir David Attenborough’ has captured the public’s imagination.
Nearing completion at Cammell Laird, the vessel has carried forward a history of innovation and
proven that UK shipbuilders can construct the most advanced commercial vessels. The exceedingly
complex ‘Sir David Attenborough’ sits at the cutting edge of technology and has been a steep
learning curve for the shipyard.
That experience and those skills need to be nurtured if the UK is to meet its commitment to sustain a
viable commercial shipbuilding capability in line with Maritime 2050 aspirations. Defence Secretary
Ben Wallace has been appointed as Shipbuilding Tsar to work across government to ensure that
Further Education, skills apprenticeships and graduates are harnessed to achieve a sustainable skills
base for shipbuilding across the United Kingdom.
When demand is high, the UK’s commercial shipyards are very capable of collaborating to meet
module–build defence requirements such as the Aircraft Carrier Alliance programme. Whilst building
the Fleet Solid Support ships in the UK would follow the recommendations of Sir John Parker’s
National Shipbuilding Strategy review and be very welcome, the industry cannot afford to put all its
eggs in one basket and depend entirely on UK MoD orders – diversity is a necessity to iron out the
peaks and troughs of naval procurement and ensure a skilled workforce able to operate across both
sectors. Expertise must be maintained in the commercial markets to avoid going back to a boom and
The modular build concept has proven an efficient way of spreading a project across several
shipyards. The stern block for the RRS ‘Sir David Attenborough’ was built by A&P Tyne and shipped
by barge to Cammell Laird on the Mersey to be integrated in the vessel build. Other than Cammell
Laird and the A&P Group shipyards, there are other potentially viable contributors to such
commercial modular build projects across the United Kingdom, including Harland & Wolff in Belfast
and Ferguson’s on the Clyde.
With a commitment to an ever–decreasing dependency on fossil fuels, there is a demand for vessels
with a lower environmental impact. Future newbuilds will be more energy efficient and incorporate
They may well lead the way to an invigorated coastal shipping industry that sees freight movements
transferred from road haulage to energy efficient coastal feeder vessels, all of which will open
opportunities for a new breed of advanced – possibly autonomous – ships. Much of maritime energy
efficiency technology resides in these islands – what better way to meet our global carbon reduction
targets than investing in British designed and manufactured, environmentally advanced ships?
Ship building margins are low and risk is significant. Projects should be considered a shared risk and
a buyer–builder partnership. This is particularly important where a ship is a first of class or a one–off,
as a bespoke product is always going to be more costly to design and build than one of a series. And
a series of vessels – even if the platform is modified or adapted between vessels – is an opportunity
to reduce costs and de–risk a newbuilding project.
Cammell Laird has worked with a forward–thinking ship designer to develop an adaptable and
efficient platform with a number of advanced propulsion solutions. The potential applications range
from a 135m short–sea RoRo or RoPax ferry to an innovative and versatile Humanitarian Aid/Disaster
Relief (HADR) ship tailored for training and ocean advocacy duties. Such a vessel could revitalise
shipbuilding across the United Kingdom and the HADR could be financed with no additional cost to
the taxpayer through Overseas Development Aid funding. Shovel ready? Pretty much.
Perhaps the rapid development of technology will see less focus on ships built to naval standards,
but commercial platforms adapted to deploy boats, UAV’s and UUV’s in a variety of scenarios as
required. A STUFT HADR would be a valuable asset as an LSS, anti–piracy mother vessel or similar
role in times of crisis.
So, what part can the UK government play in stimulating and supporting the commercial
shipbuilding industry, help in levelling a somewhat inequitable global playing field, and assist
commercial shipbuilding towards efficiency, sustainability, and exports?
The domestic demand for vessels is centred around ferries (we are, after all, an island nation) and
particularly government controlled or influenced assets, ranging from ferries to Buoy and Lighthouse
tenders. The Scottish government’s requirement for renewal of the domestic ferry fleet alone is
enough to sustain a substantial part of the UK commercial shipbuilding industry for decades.
Government tenders could take into consideration the true cost of building ships in the United
Kingdom. It has been calculated that around 35 percent of the contracted value finds its way back
into the Treasury through the tax system, making the lower purchase price of a foreign build look
like a cheaper option for the budget holder, but ultimately it is more expensive for the taxpayer. It
doesn’t demand a great deal of creativity to ensure that tenders place an emphasis on social
responsibilities and local content, including the positive impact on long term skills and employment
in the deprived areas where many of our shipyards are located. And given that around a third of the
value of a newbuild ship resides with the shipyard, there is two thirds that goes to benefit the supply
chain. Every job created in the shipyard creates multiple jobs elsewhere.
Competing for tenders is a costly activity both in terms of time and resource, and public sector
tenders are often complex and weighty. Commercially focussed shipyards do not have the resource
to dedicate to anything but the least risky projects and least onerous tender processes. In contrast, a
non–government commercial newbuild project rarely carries anything like the same demands on
shipyard resource prior to a contract, nor during the design and build programme. Commercial
shipyards are agile and less bureaucratic than the large defence contractors, ideally suited to the
faster pace of the commercial market, and government tenders should reflect that.
Should the UK Government choose to place its own requirements with domestic shipyards, it would
send a positive message to the international markets.
A ‘Home Shipbuilding Fund’ could underwrite shipyard borrowing and refund guarantee
commitments for domestic contracts. Whilst UK Export Finance can assist in bidding for export
orders, overseas shipyards are often supported by their governments and thus have an advantage in
competing in the UK market where UK shipyards enjoy no such support.
Whilst R&D aid has been deployed for innovative ships in EU shipyards, UK R&D cash has largely
been swallowed by low–TRL research projects and not at the ‘Valley of Death’ where it is needed to
bridge the gap between prototype and production. It could be argued that ships being built at the
cutting edge of today’s technology are essentially pushing the boundaries, and funding some of their
design development would be a responsible action.
It is possible to compete with lower cost base countries in select markets, particularly where the
product is a complex, high quality and high value asset. Developing the experience gained from the
RRS ‘Sir David Attenborough’, there are export opportunities for British–built Research vessels in a
growing market. The Britannia Maritime Aid HADR vessel has great export potential as global
warming exposes shortcomings in disaster response, be it coastal flooding, hurricanes, or other
The UK commercial shipbuilding industry needs certainty of orders to invest in infrastructure and
people. The right products can both satisfy domestic demand and open up the international market
for exports, particularly in a post–Brexit world where the United Kingdom is able to explore new
horizons. Nobody is looking for handouts, but such a ‘leg–up’ would create that certainty and
confidence and would repay the Treasury many times over.