Devonport dockyard in Plymouth was selected as the sole site for refitting the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines by John Major's government even though the competing Rosyth dockyard in Fife would have been safer and cheaper to run, according to recently released archive papers.
“Consideration of objective criteria …all point to a nuclear Rosyth” according to a draft minute prepared for the then Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, and choosing Devonport to undertake the refit work would be “seeking to defend the transparently indefensible”. Civil servants in the Scottish Office accused their Whitehall colleagues of showing “a south of England bias” over the decision, with David Miller, Mr Lang’s private secretary, writing: “It is very plain that a considerable anti-Rosyth lobby exists within MoD.”
At the time, both yards were engaged in a competition to become Britain’s sole nuclear dockyard as part of an MoD review of its ship-refitting capabilities. Despite Scottish Office concerns and the subsequent ill-feeling generated in Scotland, a decision was taken to move all the Navy's submarine refit work to Devonport, resulting in the downgrade of Rosyth to a surface ship refit facility employing far fewer staff.
According to the Scottish Office: “The consideration of objective criteria leads to the conclusion that the nuclear work should be located at Rosyth. Naval management considerations, safety, logistics, employment, the force of commitments given in the past, and the objectives of privatisation all point to nuclear Rosyth.”
However, deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, who was also President of the Board of Trade, lobbied for the government to choose the Devonport option, writing to Mr Major to say: “The award of the contract to Devonport would help buy the necessary time [for diversification of the economy] and I urge you to give full consideration to this aspect in deciding to which yard the contract should be awarded.”
The Devonport dockyard has long been considered a controversial site for submarine refit operations, which include the fuelling and defuelling of submarine nuclear reactors, as it is located adjacent to a large urban population close to the centre of the city of Plymouth. The dockyard is believed to be the only location in the world where work of this nature is conducted in such close proximity to a large population.
Seven of the Royal Navy's decommissioned submarines are currently in afloat at Rosyth awaiting a dismantling. Both Rosyth and Devonport are under consideration by the Ministry of Defence as candidate locations for submarine dismantling operations.