Drug companies have played a major role in the Kent economy for a century or more.
GlaxoSmithKline – formerly Wellcome – dominated the Dartford scene, injecting millions into the town and surrounding areas for generations.
But it is gone. Now Pfizer, home of Viagra and one of the county’s biggest private sector employers, is quitting. It is the biggest blow to our economy since the closure of Chatham Royal Naval Dockyard in 1984 which did no much to ravage the Medway Towns.
The loss of Pfizer’s world-renowned facility is not only a massive blow to 2,400 people and the thousands more who depend on Pfizer’s business, but also to Kent’s reputation as a great place for the pharma industry. It is one of the key sectors promoted by inward investment agency Locate in Kent, and a UK priority sectors.
But Pfizer’s decision, taken in New York, purports to have little to do with our attractiveness to pharma companies, more a reflection of changes in the industry itself and the ending of lucrative drug patents.
We need to know more before we can exonerate the company from blame. For all the global circumstances, the closure decision is a regrettable American insult to Kent and the UK. They must come clean on their decision-making process that left Sandwich abandoned.
One also has to ask whether the Government did enough to persuade the US giant to keep Pfizer in Sandwich. Was it well enough informed? Certainly Locate in Kent, local MPs and trade union representatives knew nothing in advance.
One of LiK’s primary roles is to protect jobs. But if they are not told, they cannot discharge this obligation, underlining just how vulnerable the agency – and the economy – is to global decision-making. They appear impotent - sorry about the pun - when it comes to worldwide companies taking decisions that wreak so much havoc on local communities.
Its secret nature left no time to debate possible solutions. This Government may not have been willing to offer sweeteners, but something could and should have been done. All the action is to happen now after the horse as bolted. The taskforce is welcome, the prospect of a science park or some other R&D facility would be ideal.
Perhaps another pharma company. Employment needs to match the high skills of the redundant workforce. But, as David Philpott, chairman of Kent Institute of Directors, points out, the site is geographically isolated and not ideal for many international companies.
However, everyone must pull together. This will be the first big test for the new local enterprise partnership, and the Government’s willingness to check its ferocious cost-cutting campaign and hand out some transformational cash. There is hope.
There is life after the closure of the former East Kent coalfields. And Medway’s economy has gradually recovered from the dockyard closure. But in both cases, it took many years to recover.
The closure will also offer new start-up opportunities to redundant staff with the courage to pursue commercial ideas. Kent Science Park at Sittingbourne, a hi-tech beacon, is ready to welcome science entrepreneurs.
But the bottom line is that jobs, skills and Kent’s assertion that it is a great place for knowledge-based industries are all at stake in the wake of yesterday's devastating news..