Appledore shipyard closed nearly 18 months ago after failing to secure new orders © Mike Southon/Alamy

A historic shipyard in north Devon is to reopen after being sold for £7m to an investor which plans to expand into supplying structures and barges for offshore wind farms.

The Appledore facility in Bideford shut its doors nearly 18 months ago after failing to secure new orders, despite the Ministry of Defence offering to bring forward £60m of work.

Its new owner, the infrastructure group InfraStrata, plans to broaden the yard’s customer base by targeting business in ferries, defence, commercial fabrication, oil and gas and renewables.

“Once up and running, we believe there will be 350 people operating that yard, with probably 1,000 subcontractors in the local community [and] 50 apprentices,” John Wood, InfraStrata’s chief executive, told the Financial Times.

During a visit to the shipyard on Tuesday, prime minister Boris Johnson hailed the deal which he said would “drive forward our ambitions to become a shipbuilding superpower”. 

“I think it’s important not to over promise but I do genuinely think there’s a potential fantastic future here,” he told the North Devon Gazette.

Prime minister Boris Johnson (centre) with John Wood, InfraStrata chief executive, (right) at Appledore shipyard on Tuesday © Ben Birchall/PA

The deal to save the yard is a rare spot of good news for Britain’s manufacturing sector, as companies in areas such as aerospace and carmaking slash jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Appledore is the second historic shipyard rescued by InfraStrata. Last year it bought Harland & Wolff, the Belfast-based builder of the Titanic. The Aim-listed company said Appledore’s focus on smaller vessels complemented the site in Northern Ireland, which specialises in larger ships.

Established at the mouth of the River Torridge on the north Devon coast in 1855, Appledore has built more than 350 vessels, including naval ships, superyachts, ferries and dredgers. 

Mr Wood said the two yards hoped to secure some government work, which is expected to place orders for as many as 150 vessels over the next decade. The company is part of a consortium that plans to bid for a £1bn MoD contracts for three Royal Navy support vessels.

“With levelling up and investing in the regions, there’s no reason that work can’t go to Belfast and Appledore,” he added, referring to the government’s election promise to boost regional economies.

Heathcliffe Petiffer, regional officer for Unite and previously the union’s convener at the yard, said the reopening would give a “huge boost” to the local community. 

“[We have] consistently argued that the Appledore shipyard was viable and its closure was due to a lack of political will and a failure of economic planning,” he added. “It is now essential that work resumes at the shipyard at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Although the assets came with just one employee — the site manager — InfraStrata said it believed a workforce could be quickly recruited.

“It is very brave of InfraStrata. Quite a lot of the workers at Appledore have gone on to other jobs,” said Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis. “The biggest problem for naval shipbuilding work is the Royal Navy still says that only what they classify as complex warships will be UK-built."

Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, welcomed the news and said the yard had needed “a credible and established new owner with a viable business plan for long-term operations”.

“Pleased for our communities, the workforce and the great tradition of English shipbuilding on the Torridge,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Appledore shipyard yard went into administration in 2003, with all 550 jobs lost. It was reopened the following year by DML, which was later taken over by Babcock International in 2007.

InfraStrata is buying the site from Langham Industries and will pay the acquisition sum in four instalments, including £1.4m in shares.

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