Heseltine condemned over closure of Warren Spring

The UK's top environmental research facility, Warren Spring Laboratory (WSL), is to close next April. The decision by the President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, has drawn widespread condemnation, and his announcement that the merger of part of WSL's capability with AEA Technology to form a National Environmental Technology Centre (NETC) has failed to convince.

The announcement came barely two months after it became known that Mr Heseltine was considering the closure of WSL or its merger with other research facilities. The advice on which he based the decision has been kept secret, and the affair ended as it began with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) breaking a promise.

Last year, the DTI assured WSL that it would be built a new facility in Welwyn Garden City after its site in nearby Stevenage was sold to the pharmaceutical company Glaxo. Then, on 4 May, the DTI said that the future of its five laboratories, including WSL, would be subject to a review by external consultants. That review had barely begun when, on 10 June, Mr Heseltine announced that WSL was to be closed.

Some of WSL's staff and facilities, said Mr Heseltine, will be transferred to AEA Technology to form the new NETC. The name appears to be something of a misnomer.

According to Mr Heseltine's announcement, the NETC will be based at not one but two of the AEA's sites, Harwell and Culham. Moreover, in March the AEA disbanded its Environment and Energy Division, the most obvious home for WSL's staff. And in June it announced that its environmental services will be headquartered at Risley, near Warrington, alongside its safety and energy consultancy services. Quite how anything as cohesive as suggested by the new NETC will emerge from this is anyone's guess.

The decision has drawn widespread criticism. The National Society for Clean Air, a body not known for extremist language, described it as "a triumph of short-term opportunism over long-term strategic thinking. It is a damning comment on the Government's commitment to our science base in general and to environmental protection technology in particular."

And IPMS, the trade union representing WSL's professionals, claimed that the creation of the NETC was mere "window-dressing" for the Government's attempts to fatten up AEA prior to possible privatisation.

WSL's 250 staff are now waiting anxiously to be told which of them will be offered posts by AEA. Mr Heseltine said that "some redundancies are likely". According to IPMS, only 70 staff have asked to be considered for transfer. Senior professionals in WSL's recycling and contaminated land research teams are known to be considering other employment opportunities, while the air pollution division is looking at setting up as an independent consultancy.

The staff transfer issue could yet prove a problem for Mr Heseltine. In his announcement on 10 June, he said that WSL staff "required to work on the business to be transferred will be expected to transfer to the AEA with their work." However, since AEA is not part of the civil service, the IPMS is questioning whether the DTI can insist on compulsory transfers from WSL under EC employment rules.

WSL's personnel are known to be uneasy about their long-term prospects at AEA, which has been shedding staff at a rate of knots over the past three years as much of its nuclear research business has disappeared. About 1,000 jobs went in 1992/3 alone, reducing its workforce to 8,000, and further substantial cuts are expected this year.

Ironically, the Government's market testing initiative has reduced the security of the business which may be transferred to AEA from WSL, with many of the contracts placed by Whitehall being much shorter than in the past.

An illustration of this was provided by a parliamentary answer from the Department of Transport in June. This showed that, of the 23 contracts placed with WSL since early 1991, 11 were of less than six months' duration, another eight lasted 6-12 months, and only four lasted more than 12 months. It is understood that about 90% of WSL's current contracts are less than one year's duration. With customers worried about the upheaval caused by WSL's closure, this does not suggest that job security will be easy to assure for WSL employees who transfer to AEA.

The Department of the Environment, which opposed WSL's closure (ENDS Report 220, p 3 ), is believed to have been told that the anticipated increase in its research costs will be covered by the DTI. But DoE officials remain extremely concerned about the loss of WSL's research capability.

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