Plug could be pulled on testing lab

DISASTER' .... how union chief Tom Brennan views the proposed closure of the Clothier Laboratories at the huge former Reyrolles site, pictured.
DISASTER' .... how union chief Tom Brennan views the proposed closure of the Clothier Laboratories at the huge former Reyrolles site, pictured.

BOSSES want to pull the plug on a unique electrical testing facility in South Tyneside, it was revealed today.

The huge Clothier Laboratories – the only high-voltage (HV) testing site of its kind in the UK and one of only a handful in the world – has dominated part of the Hebburn landscape for decades, carrying out work for the National Grid and other network operators.

But now owner Narec proposes closing the electricity testing facility after it was announced nearby Hebburn company Trench UK – one of its main clients – is set to close, with the loss of almost 90 jobs.

The move has been called “a disaster” by GMB regional secretary Tom Brennan, who has backed moves to save Trench UK.

He said: “It is absolutely diabolical to talk about closing a testing facility of that quality.

“We cannot afford to lose these kinds of skills and expertise, which are of strategic importance to this region.”

Bosses at Narec, the renewable energy and low carbon technologies centre, based in Blyth, Northumberland, say the Hebburn centre – part of the Reyrolles site, which once had a 10,000-strong workforce – is losing money and needs substantial investment, at a time when public funding is being redirected elsewhere.

The closure plans were announced to the Clothier workforce on Friday and the future of a dozen jobs at the facility are now in doubt.

Just last year a VIP celebration was held at the factory to mark its 40th anniversary, with Narec chief executive officer Andrew Mill heralding the Hebburn facility as a key technological provider, helping to make his company “the national centre” for renewable energy and low carbon generation technologies.

Incorporating huge testing towers, the Hebburn facility has helped improve the reliability and safety of electrical networks since 1970, when it was opened by the-then Technology Minister Tony Benn.

A huge campaign is ongoing to save Trench UK backed by MP Stephen Hepburn and North East Labour MEP Stephen Hughes.

A source for Trench UK, in nearby South Drive, Hebburn, said: “I would say we are the major client for Clothier Laboratories, which can test two or three high-voltage bushings or insulators a week for us. If not for the planned closure of our factory, I don’t think the future of the laboratories would be in doubt.”

A spokesman for the Hebburn testing facility said: “The Clothier facility is home to Narec’s Ultra High Voltage (UHV) testing laboratory, servicing UK transmission system clients. As a stand-alone commercial entity it is a loss making business but Narec has operated the facility since September 2004 on a dual commercial and public good basis.

“A major client, which currently accounts for a significant proportion of Clothier’s income, will cease operations in mid-2012. Narec has hitherto been unable to secure alternative sources of revenue to offset this substantial loss. In addition, the closure of the regional development agency, One North East, and the changes in the required focus for the application of public funds from central Government, mean that the Clothier facility is not a viable business.

“The building itself is 40 years old and in need of repair, with major items of ageing test equipment that represent a significant business risk to operations. A significant amount of capital expenditure will be necessary in the facilities over the next couple of years and Narec does not anticipate having the commercial revenue from commercial test services to warrant such major works.

“This consultation will explore any viable alternatives to the closure of the facility, any ways of avoiding necessary redundancies as a result of any closure and will inform the feasibility of transferring capabilities and equipment to other Narec facilities in Blyth. Twelve employees are currently based full-time at the Clothier facility.”