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Woolwich Arsenal (Government Proposals)

Volume 524: debated on Friday 26 February 1954

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asked the Minister of Supply whether, in the light of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Estimates, he has now reached a decision about the future role of Woolwich Arsenal and about measures to be taken for the better use of the land and facilities on the site; and whether he will make a statement.

The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, which was founded about 250 years ago, covers an area of 1,300 acres. About 14,000 persons are employed on the site, which is at present wholly occupied by Government establishments. These include shell and small arms ammunition works, an explosives filling plant, a gun and gun-carriage factory, research establishments, ranges and proof butts, ammunition magazines, as well as Admiralty and War Office workshops and stores.At the beginning of 1937, the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield and the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey were the only Ordnance Factories. However, the increasing variety of weapons and equipment required for modern war, together with the exceptional vulnerability to air attack of the Greater London area made it necessary greatly to-expand the Government's munitions-making capacity and to disperse it more widely.Accordingly, between 1937 and the end of the war some 40 additional Royal Ordnance Factories were set up in various parts of the country, each specially equipped for some particular branch of production, such as artillery weapons, machine guns, small arms, shell and shell cases, small arms ammunition, high explosives, propellants, ammunition and bomb filling, tanks and chemicals. A number of these factories were closed when hostilities ceased, but about 20 of them have continued to operate and constitute today an important part of our war potential.During the war the Arsenal was extensively damaged by bombing and many of the functions previously undertaken at Woolwich were transferred to one or other of the new specialist factories elsewhere. The result was that, when the war ended, the Arsenal was left with no clearly defined role. In view of the uncertainty about its future, expenditure on repairs and modernisation was kept down to the minimum. Consequently many of the buildings have become dilapidated and much of the line production plant is now more or less obsolete.The position was examined by the Select Committee on Estimates for the Session 1951-52, which recommended that:

"The question of the use of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and its fuller integration with the whole organisation of the Royal Ordnance Factories should be given immediate consideration; "and that" the possibilities of concentrating the work and releasing as much as possible of the site for other development should be carefully examined."

Following upon this Report, I set up an Inter-Departmental Committee of Inquiry, composed of officials of the Government Departments concerned, under the chairmanship of Sir Donald Perrott. I instructed this Committee to review the activities now being carried on in Woolwich Arsenal and to make recommendations regarding the future use of the land and facilities available there. In addition, I asked the Royal Ordnance Factories Board to make a separate study of the special problems affecting the three Ordnance Factories on the Arsenal site.

After full inquiries lasting several months, they submitted to me a number of important recommendations which together constituted a comprehensive plan of reorganisation. I gave the House a summary of these recommendations on 27th July last. At the same time I made it dear that, before deciding whether to adopt these proposals, I intended to give to the workpeople, the public authorities, and all others affected a full opportunity to study them and comment upon them.

During the autumn I received a number of memoranda containing detailed observations upon the proposed plan. Since then my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I have had a series of meetings with representatives of organisations concerned, including the London County Council, the Woolwich Borough Council, the Ministry of Supply Whitley Council, the Ministry of Supply Joint Industrial Council and the Woolwich Combined Shop Stewards Committee.

These consultations have shown that there is general agreement that some major re-organisation of the Arsenal site is long overdue and that the part to be played by Woolwich, within the system of the Royal Ordnance Factories, needs to be redefined in the light of changed circumstances. These thorough and detailed discussions have left me convinced of the soundness of the proposed re-organisation plan which I outlined to the House last July. I have therefore decided to adopt this plan, which comprises five main features.

  • (1) The filling factory, most of which is in a derelict condition, will be dismantled; and the site, when decontaminated and cleared, will be made available for use by industry or by some public authority.
  • (2) The gun and ammunition factories will be amalgamated into a single ordnance factory, which will concentrate upon work suited to the special skill and experience of the Arsenal, in particular, experimental and development work in connection with armaments and ammunition, batch production, modifications and reconditioning of equipment, and the manufacture of tools and gauges. In due course this factory will cease to undertake regular line production.
  • (3) A site of about 100 acres on the south side, will be sold for use as an industrial estate to accommodate London firms which have to leave their present premises and cannot move out of the London area. The London County Council has informed me that it would be interested in acquiring this site for such a purpose and detailed discussions are proceeding.
  • (4) The remainder of the central area will be made available to the Service Departments, thus enabling them to bring together their engineering workshops, stores and other facilities, which are at present scattered, and also to move into the Arsenal certain activities from elsewhere.
  • (5) The low-lying marshland at the eastern end of the site, which will for some years continue to be required for the storage and transit of explosives, will gradually be raised above river level by means of controlled tipping so that in due course it may be possible to turn it to more valuable uses.
  • In the course of the consultations to which I have referred, a number of constructive suggestions were made about the use of particular buildings, about the possibility of retaining the boiling-out plant, about additional types of work suitable for Woolwich, about certain wage problems and various other matters. In carrying through the reorganisation, all these suggestions will be most carefully considered.

    In particular, every effort will be made to avoid causing hardship to the workpeople at the Arsenal. In this connection the trade union representatives concerned have urged that the labour force should be maintained at its present level. It is impossible for me to give any definite assurances about the future level of employment at the Arsenal, since this will to a large extent depend upon the volume of suitable defence orders. However, when the re-organisation is completed, it seems probable that, whilst the number of Government employees will be smaller, the labour force on the Arsenal site as a whole, including the trading estate, will in total be larger than today.

    Since the reorganisation will, necessarily be spread over several years, any necessary reductions will, to an appreciable extent, be brought about by the process of normal wastage. In any case, the plan will be kept flexible and the timing of the various stages will be phased with due regard to the employment position in the locality.

    For their part, the London County Council have assured me that, assuming they purchase the industrial estate, they will endeavour to encourage firms to establish themselves in this area which are of a type capable of providing suitable employment for persons who may become redundant in the ordnance factory.

    At my invitation a special Consultative Committee, composed of officials and trade union representatives, has been set up for the purpose of considering together the various problems which will arise during the progress of the reorganisation. The Committee will report to me from time to time and will have access to me when necessary.

    After exhaustive consideration, 1 am satisfied that the plan which I have announced will provide a constructive and workable solution to this complex and long-standing problem. It will give to Woolwich Arsenal a more important and distinctive role in our armament production system and one worthy of the part played in the past by this historic institution. It will, as desired by the Select Committee, secure the concentration of the Arsenal's munitions-making activities, which are now widely dispersed, and will justify the provision of more up-to-date plant and facilities for those engaged on this work. In addition it will bring into being a civilian industrial estate, capable of providing substantial employment; and, over a longer period, it will enable other parts of this valuable riverside site to be progressively freed for more productive uses.