What are you doing about Norfolk’s 1,150 potential job losses? We demand answers from the government
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The lights have been switched on, the decorations are beginning to go up – Christmas is just five weeks away. But for more than 1,150 people in Norfolk a dark shadow has already been cast over the festive period.
In the past six weeks workers at key sites across our county have received the news everyone dreads – their jobs are under threat.
A combined total of more than 350 jobs are at risk at the Colman's/Britvic site in Norwich and as many as 231 BAE Systems' workers face redundancy at RAF Marham. And just this week construction industry trainer the CITB shocked the 575-strong workforce at its Bircham Newton headquarters with news of plans to relocate to Peterborough.
In the worst-case scenario hundreds of jobs are likely to be lost. And many of those jobs are highly-skilled and well-paid positions. The personal devastation and upheaval each of those families face must not be disregarded. But the impact of losing these jobs will also be felt much wider – in Norfolk's economy right now and it's potential to attract and hold on to the best and brightest in the future.
Today the Eastern Daily Press has written to the Business Secretary Greg Clark to ask him: 'What can you do to help?'
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We want to know what the government can do to ease the worry of those families facing up to a turbulent 2018 and ultimately save Norfolk jobs.
Can the government intervene directly with the BAE Systems' jobs – which are so reliant on orders from the Ministry of Defence – or help make Norfolk more attractive in the short term to the firms who seem so keen to abandon our county?
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And longer term, what can be done to ensure this is not the beginning of a rot that could cripple Norfolk's economy and spark a brain drain from our colleges and universities to London and cities in the Northern Powerhouse where efforts are abound to create opportunity for businesses and individuals alike.
Norfolk must not be left behind.
The MPs whose constituents are directly impacted by these firms looking to move have not been sat on their hands. Meetings have been held, campaigns launched and demands made.
But it will take something more than local pressure alone. Firms need incentives to remain, they need assurances from government about why the East of England has a bright future, one they should be part of. And this task, Mr Clark, needs to begin at your desk.
Labour's Norwich South MP Clive Lewis met with the business secretary last month to draw his attention to the fears over the potential Colman's/Britvic closure.
He believes much of the uncertainty within business has been caused by Brexit and wants the government to invest in the East through public-funded agencies such as Innovate UK.
'Measured by value, the food and drink industry is now the most important contributor to the UK's manufacturing sector,' he said. 'Specifically in Norwich the potential loss of 350 directly employed roles at Britvic/Unilever would represent a loss of more than £10 million to the local economy.
'A number of companies are referencing Brexit, as the sector is threatened by currency devaluation, the rising cost of components and the potential imposition of tariffs post-Brexit.
'It is especially important in this context that agencies that support research and development into more efficient and environmentally sustainable processes, such as Innovate UK, use their resources to support UK industry.
'I would like to understand what the government is doing in Norwich to support food and drink manufacturing and the development of new skills, technologies and strategic investment through agencies such as Innovate UK.'
But Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said the Conservatives were acting in the best interests of those whose jobs were under threat and the generations to come.
'Any job losses are very worrying for people. It's a further blow if an iconic brand like Colman's leaves Norfolk. I've ensured government is on standby ahead of what Britvic and Unilever decide to do, so that we have sector support in agriculture and manufacturing, trade support for new opportunities as well as redundancy support for employees if it is needed. Next, I'm bringing the LEP to see the business secretary to review the options.
'What government can do is continue to support our infrastructure, like maintaining progress with the new trains that my Norwich in 90 campaign has secured. A Conservative government will always ensure a strong national economy. That means a strong future for Norfolk because new businesses can have the confidence to make more jobs here even if others change.'
Sir Henry Bellingham launched a campaign to save the CITB jobs even before the official announcement had been made. He has since held a meeting skills minister Anne Milton, and has also spoken to the business secretary Greg Clark and chancellor Philip Hammond. He said: 'They were extremely sympathetic to my argument that it's absolutely imperative that the HQ stays at Bircham.'
Analysis: We must ensure Norfolk has a bright future
Greg Clark doesn't want anyone to lose their job.
Ideally he would prefer 100% employment – it's good for votes.
But for a number of reasons Norfolk has been hit hard in recent months with the very real threat of hundreds of jobs being lost. The personal heartache and potential upheaval for families will be especially acute at this time of year.
Supporters of a free market would argue the state should not intervene directly in the economy – but there have been occasions before when this government has. For example, the assurances Theresa May gave to Nissan to ensure production of a new model remained on Wearside.
There are measures the government should take now but perhaps even more important is ensuring our region has a bright future. Norfolk includes some very safe Conservative seats – surely the government wouldn't want to upset those voters?
The letter in full
Dear Mr Clark,
You will be aware of the potentially devastating jobs losses facing Norfolk. More than a 1,150 jobs are at risk at Unilever, Britvic, RAF Marham and, most recently the CITB headquarters in Bircham Newton.
If these jobs are lost each one will represent a personal sorrow to the individual involved and their families and beyond that the impact to Norfolk's economy could be significant.
I'm sure you will agree Norfolk has a positive impact on the economy of this country - and we want that to continue.
I am writing to you to seek assurances the government is doing all it can to help Norfolk people and protect these jobs.
We, the EDP, have three questions and hopefully the answers will go some way to ease the fears of those affected by these companies' potential relocations and provide reassurance around wider concerns about Norfolk's ability to continue to be a prosperous county.
:: What have you and your department done to try to save the jobs currently at risk across our county?
:: Have the firms involved sought any assurances from government that could help keep them in Norfolk, and were any given?
:: How will the government help Norfolk to remain an attractive location for business, both for employees and firms?
We look forward to your response.
David Powles, editor of the Eastern Daily Press on behalf of the people of Norfolk