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Petition launched today as battle begins to save 200 jobs at closure-threatened Heinz food factory near North Walsham

PUBLISHED: 10:39 09 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:00 09 October 2014

The threatened Heinz factory at Worstead, near North Walsham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The threatened Heinz factory at Worstead, near North Walsham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

A petition has been launched calling for a rethink over the planned closure of a Norfolk food factory which would axe 200 jobs.

Aunt Bessie's products whose withdrawal from the Heinz Westwick factory is behind the  closure plans. Aunt Bessie's products whose withdrawal from the Heinz Westwick factory is behind the closure plans.

Labour party supporters will be out in North Walsham town centre this morning, asking market day shoppers to sign up to their cause.

The community near the apparently doomed Heinz factory at Westwick is being asked to rally behind the endangered workers.
Town centre campaigners will be about from 10.30am but the petition can also be found online at www.jobsmeansheinz.co.uk.

Denise Burke, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for North Norfolk, said: “Heinz is a big employer here in North Walsham and to lose the factory would be so devastating for the families of the 200 people they currently employ, especially so close to Christmas.

“It would also have a knock-on effect on the local community and that is why we have set up this petition for residents to support the workers in their fight to get Heinz to reconsider.”

Production line workers packaging frozen sprouts at the Ross's Westwick factory at North Walsham before they were taken over by Heinz. Production line workers packaging frozen sprouts at the Ross's Westwick factory at North Walsham before they were taken over by Heinz.

Labour said they wanted to keep the pressure on company bosses them to ensure that they kept to their word and explored all of the options on the table.

The bitter blow to families and the local economy has been caused by bosses of the Aunt Bessie’s potato products pulling the contract from the Norfolk factory, which has been operating since 1948.

Workers were briefed on the closure plans yesterday lunchtime. But they were staying tight-lipped last night as the shift ended at 7pm – refusing to comment to an EDP reporter waiting at the factory gate.

They left briskly in their cars from the remote rural site, as the darkness and rain reflect the mood of shock and disappointment aired by local politicians and community leaders.

Latest jobs blow for area

The planned Heinz closure is the third big factory blow for the North Walsham area in the past 15 years.

The first shock wave came in 1999 when the Crane Fruehauf trailer factory on the Norwich Road closed its doors.

Five hundred people lost their jobs, but the busy factory - which had a sister factory at Dereham - employed double that in its heyday.

The site now has a Waitrose supermarket on part of it, providing 150 jobs, while one of the factory units has been converted into Davenport’s Magic Kingdom attraction.

Skeletal frames from other Crane’s building still stand there as a reminder of the engineering past.

Just three years later the town was left reeling when HL Foods shut its Norwich Road factory after 70 years of operation.

It had once employed 200 people canning fruit in summer and beans in winter.

HL Foods, based in Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, bought the plant from HP in 1996.

After many years of standing derelict, the site, clearly visible from the railway station, is being redeveloped for housing and train passenger parking.

Heinz said it was “deeply disappointed”, but that the switch of Aunt Bessie’s frozen potato products to another manufacturer meant there was not enough volume of work left to keep the factory operational.

The closure is likely to happen between February and April next year.

A company spokesman said: “Heinz fully appreciates and regrets the impact this proposal may have on employees and the local community.

“It is not a reflection of the commitment of our employees or the quality of the Aunt Bessie’s products they have made since 1999.”

A 45-day consultation period will see the company “consider suggestions made by employee representatives and will continue to explore alternatives to avoid or limit the impact of a potential closure,”

It would also explore opportunities to find a buyer for the factory.

Aunt Bessie frozen potato products, such as chips and roast potatoes, are made for the William Jackson Group.

The group’s chief executive Norman Soutar said the Heinz contract was reaching a natural end and they were keen to bring management in-house, giving “greater influence over long-term future direction.”

Production was switching to Agristo which is based in Belgium and the Netherlands.

A factory employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had found out on social media about the closure as he was not working yesterday. He said: “I knew it was going to happen but I didn’t think it would be this close to Christmas. I haven’t got a clue what I will do. It is out of order.”

Last August union bosses called for talks with Heinz bosses over streamlining plans which might affect the Norfolk factory. But the latest news is far more devastating.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “It is really distressing news. We need to explore all the options for the company. My thoughts go out to the families of the employees who will be going through a distressing time.”

He added a member of staff from the factory had approached him two weeks ago with concerns about the factory, and the MP wrote to the company to get more information.

North Norfolk District Council leader Tom FitzPatrick said the closure would have “a significant effect on North Walsham and the workforce.

“Over the years it has been a stable and loyal workforce. It as bad news for the area,” said Mr Fitzpatrick who said the council would try to help the workforce.

Council cabinet member for economic development Russell Wright said the factory was “massively important to the area” as one of the few big employers in north Norfolk.

Worstead Parish Council chairman Simon Cole said he was saddened by the news. “It seems a shame in this economic climate that those people are going to lose their jobs as a consequence,” he said.

“It has always been there and the relationship has always been extremely good with the factory.

“Hopefully whoever takes on the site will provide employment for people who are going to lose their jobs.”

North Walsham businessman Rob Scammell, who is leading a campaign to revitalise the town, said to lose 200 jobs was a huge thing for the town.

“It is a tragedy for anyone to lose their job and I know there are people who have been there for a long time,” he said.

Factory employee Matt Waitt, 25, of Pine Close in Ormesby St Margaret, has been working at the Heinz factory for three years as a machine technician.

He said: “I have got two young children and we were about to move house but I am not sure that’s going to happen now.

“It is a well paid job and there is not many of those around here.”

■ What do you think about the proposed closure? write (giving your full contact details) to: The Letters Editor, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email EDPLetters@archant.co.uk

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