A MAJOR private employer in one of the region's most rural locations has announced that it is to shed a fifth of its workforce.

William Cook Defence, in Stanhope, in the County Durham dales, has issued 50 staff with notices warning them their jobs are at risk.

The company, which makes tank tracks, has been the biggest private employer in Weardale for decades, and the job losses will be a blow to the area's economy.

Weardale suffered badly during the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, and was again hit when French group Lafarge closed the Blue Circle cement works, in Eastgate, three years ago, with the loss of 147 jobs.

John Shuttleworth, ward member for Durham County Council, said: "It is a huge blow for the local economy.

"It is like a smaller version of what happened at Blue Circle. There are young families I know who have just bought houses on the strength of working there.

"It is 50 jobs now, but I just hope there isn't another 50 jobs going in six months' time."

Managing director Phil Kite declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement.

It said: "William Cook Defence has experienced a significant downturn in its UK defence business.

"Accordingly, the company has to plan for long-term lower demand and, as a result of this, it is with regret that we propose the potential loss of up to 50 jobs.

"Consultation with the recognised trade unions and employee representatives has commenced.

"I am confident the company has a future, as long as - like all manufacturing businesses - it is competitive."

The company, formerly George Blair Limited, has more than 250 employees, manufacturing components for the defence, construction and freight-handling industries.

It has traditionally supplied all the British Army's tracked vehicles, but has faced stiff competition in recent years from foreign manufacturers.

It has struggled since 1999, when it won a £50m Ministry of Defence contract.

Gerry Hunter, from the Amicus union, which represents most of the workers, said: "William Cook has a wonderful reputation in the defence world, because it makes high-quality products.

"The whole of the UK foundry industry is under intense pressure and a lot of work has been offshored.

"They are competing not only with Europe, but against global competition."

In total, 40 shop floor workers and ten office staff at the foundry will be laid off. A mandatory 30-day consultation period between management and the Amicus and GMB unions is already under way, with the first redundancies expected in the middle of next month.

The plant has been part of the Sheffield-based group, William Cook Cast Products, since a £16m takeover in 1989.

Sister operation William Cook Tow Law, which employs about 70 workers, will not be affected.

No one was available for comment at William Cook's head office yesterday.