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Curse of Fujitsu?
It was the world’s most advanced microelectronics plant – opened to a royal fanfare by The Queen. But the £340m former Fujitsu plant, in Newton Aycliffe, is today under a veil of uncertainty after its current owner announced plans to leave the region. Deputy Business Editor Steven Hugill reports
IT was heralded as a vision of the future, an electronic panacea for the North- East economy. When The Queen donned her rubber gloves and protective clothing to open the Fujitsu factory, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, in 1991, it wasn’t just a royal visit, but a real glimpse into a new world.
The massive plant sat atop a hill in Heighington Lane Business Park, its flags flying briskly in the breeze.
The Japanese electronics company was carried along by winds of optimism, with plans to employ up to 1,500 people and make the factory a key European base to produce millions of microchips every year.
An heir apparent to Nissan’s successes in Sunderland, and Siemens, in North Tyneside, Fujitsu was hailed as the major inward investor that would shine brightly on the region’s economy, lifting the gloom after the breakdown of the coal mining industry.
It had plans to develop more fabrication units around the plant and its entrance road was even named after the company, suggestive of a long and rich North-East history.
But the buoyancy was short-lived.
The firm closed the factory in 1998, axing about 600 jobs.
Today, that same air of suffocating despondency hangs thick above the plant after US firm RF Micro Devices (RFMD) announced it was cutting 200 posts and may shut the building again.
The firm, which makes semi-conductors for mobile phones, once said it put a US development on hold to buy the Newton Aycliffe plant because it was so impressed by County Durham workers.
Now it is moving all production to North Carolina and will phase down work at Newton Aycliffe during the next 12 months, despite recently securing a deal with a major manufacturer to supply 4G components for its flagship smartphone.
And all this as Chancellor George Osborne climbed on his Commons platform to declare Britain open for business.
Kingsley Smith, who chaired a Fujitsu task force to find a buyer for the plant, and replacement jobs for its workers, said the factory must be preserved.
The Queen at Fujitsu
He said: “It is such a fantastic asset for County Durham and the region and I hope they can find a buyer, ideally in the semi-conductor industry, to keep it going.
“They are really good quality technical jobs, which are important for the sector, and the company must continue to look to find a buyer, even if they don’t get one by the end of the year.
“It is a tough process, but they should look to keep the plant as it is.
“Fujitsu didn’t want it turning into a warehouse, and if this company looks after the plant, it will make it easier for another to come in and start work quickly.”
The building, which closed when Fujitsu buckled under a worldwide collapse in memory chip prices, was bought by mobile phone transmitter and chip maker Filtronic in 2000, who developed specialist components to link mobile phones to networks.
Len Davies, of Filtronic, shares a joke with Ken Frankish, of Durham Council
and John Litherland, of Sedgefield Council in front of the Welcome to Filtronic billboard
The factory was subsequently taken on by RFMD in a £12.5m deal in 2008, which appeared to secure its future until the recent shock announcement.
HOWEVER, there may be a semblance of hope.
Phil Wilson, MP for Newton Aycliffe, said he will meet RFMD bosses next week, alongside Stewart Watkins, from regional economic investment body, Business Durham, in an attempt to find a buyer.
He said: “It is an iconic building up on the hill and it would be a real shame to see it go.
“We need to do whatever we can to save it, and I have already spoken to the company who say they are actively seeking a buyer.
“While I don’t want to raise expectations, they are taking it seriously and that is good news.”
But the reality is that the plant could stand empty again.
The then prime minister Tony Blair talks to workers at the Fujitsu plant in 1998
And as the Chancellor preaches his mantra of energising an aspiration nation, it would be extremely disappointing for the region’s workers and its challenged economy if that energy was turned off at the factory for good.