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Gale's View

February 9th 2011

It would be foolish to pretend that the announced closure of the Pfizer site at Sandwich is anything other than a potential body-blow to the economy of East Kent. Pfizer remains a world-class company occupying a world-class facility and employing some of the greatest scientific brains that are available internationally. Pfizer jobs have been among the best and highest quality in the area and, in addition to the individual and personal hardships that their loss will cause,  the impact of the reduction in spending power will be felt not just in Sandwich but in Deal, throughout Thanet, in Herne Bay and Canterbury and beyond.
It is also foolish to suggest, as some have done, that this decision is somehow a vote of no-confidence in Britain`s scientific and R&D base. It is not.  Not only Pfizer but pharmaceutical companies across the globe are cutting back and consolidating as research is transferred to university locations and other facilities are contracted in as needed. Additionally, in a climate that is less willing to pay for new medical discoveries, the return on investment has been diminished. Pfizer faces a reduction in its R&D budget of some 1.25 billion dollars, affecting employment not only or even in the UK but in Italy, Germany, the United States and Canada as well. It is a sign of restructuring and changing times throughout the industry.
We, locally, either roll over and conclude that “nothing can be done” or we regard this development as a challenging opportunity and seek to revitalize the site, to attract new scientific businesses and to move forward while retaining as very many of the first-rate employees as possible in their current or new jobs.  The Prime Minister, The Secretary of State for Business, The Minister of State for Science & Technology and all of East Kent`s Members of Parliament are committed to the latter course.
The announcement was made on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, at Prime Minister`s question time, David Cameron nailed his colours firmly to the mast in response to a question from Laura Sandys who, as Pfizer`s constituency MP, is vigorously leading on this issue.
On Wednesday the Leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter, together with Paul Watkins, Dover`s Leader and Bob Bayford from Thanet met with Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.  Seizing an opportunity offered by the presence of the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, and the Science Minister, David Willetts, in the Chamber we invited them to attend the meeting. They readily agreed. With David Willetts nominated by the Prime Minister to take a Ministerial lead a very high level working group, chaired by Paul Carter and including Laura, will have held its first meeting by the time this goes to print.  Time is of the essence if we are to avoid a talent drain and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of the enterprise.
On Thursday of last week Laura Sandys and I met with Dr Ruth McKernan, Sandwich head and Senior Vice-President, on site with her executive team.  Discussions are at an early and critical stage but options for the creation of new businesses, some providing contracted services to Pfizer UK, together with academic R&D possibilities, are all under investigation and involve the input and expertise of some of the most eminent players in the fields of science and industry. While Laura and I were in discussions at Sandwich, Deal MP Charlie Elphicke was again raising matter in the House of Commons.
The point has again been made that for the economy of East Kent to attract business and prosper we need the fast rail link to be pushed through from Ashford to the proposed Thanet Parkway Station adjacent to Manston Airport. Business leaders have made it plain that good rail links are vital to inward investment.  On Wednesday evening I raised this personally with the Minister of State for Rail and with Vince Cable as Business Secretary and have now taken the matter up with The Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond.
It would be wrong to raise false hopes or to give the impression that there is not a huge task ahead of us. Equally, it is vital that we hold to the confidence that we can achieve great things and generate opportunities that will enable many excellent men and women who have committed their families and their futures to East Kent to remain employed here, where we need them.  The “bigger picture” is to ensure that their talents are not lost to the UK but locally  Charlie Elphicke (Dover and Deal), Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe), Julian Brazier (Canterbury) and myself, headed by Laura Sandys (South Thanet & Sandwich) have all taken  on the challenge.  We stand ready, willing and able to meet with any of our individual constituents who either work for Pfizer or who have businesses affected by the decision. We may not be able to offer instant solutions but we are a very determined team and we believe that, working with the pledged support of Pfizer and the Government and with our County and local authorities,  the Pfizer Sandwich site can have a future that may prove even more illustrious than its past.

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