All posts tagged 'Thanet'

Maria Miller's resignation was inevitable but who wins?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, April 9 2014

Maria Miller's resignation was predictable the moment it became clear that many of her Conservative parliamentary colleagues were not happy about her staying in her job and were taking flak on the doorsteps from voters who were questioning why she hadn't already been sacked.

And as the days went on, more Tory MPs were prepared to say publicly it might be better if she went - effectively questioning their leader's judgement and his inistence that she could stay in the cabinet.

The judgement was made by David Cameron that because she had been cleared of the central charge, she ought to be allowed to stay on.

Despite Cameron's emphasis on this point, the finer technical details on which a committee of MPs delivered this verdict went unnoticed by many - or was delibarately ignored.

That is part of the problem with accusations of political sleaze. The public - much to the exasperation of MPs elected in 2010 - were largely oblivious to the fact that her conduct and claims were being judged against the old regulations, not the new ones which have tightened many of the loopholes gratuitously abused by so many former MPs.

Fair or not, there was enough in the standards committee report - not least the charge that she had sought to frustrate the inquiry - to give her opponents ammunition. She did not do herself many favours with her perfunctory apology, a PR car crash by anyone's standards.

It is telling that as a result of this episode, politicians from all parties are now falling over themselves to talk about the need for further reforms to the expenses regulations - having told everyone back in 2010 that they had devised a foolproof set of new rules that would restore the integrity of  politicians and be impossible to circumvent.

The public backlash over the saga is not just about Maria Miller but a wider feeling that our elected representatives still play by different rules. Unless they can address that, distrust will remain.

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The forthcoming European and council elections were undoubtedly a factor in the pressure being heaped on Maria Miller.

An already tricky election for the Conservatives risked becoming even more challenging with sleaze allegations swirling around.

UKIP - already favourites to win the Euro elections - will no doubt pick up even more votes from those disaffected with the mainstream parties. And it still looks like the leader Nigel Farage will be standing as a candidate in Kent.

Whether it is Folkestone and Hythe or Thanet South remains to be seen but Mr Farage came much closer than he has before now to confirming it will be one or the other, telling my colleague Matt Leclere that "it was more than likely" he will be a candidate somewhere in the Garden of England.

 

 

 

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Categories: Politics

Grounded: is it the end for Manston airport?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 19 2014

When Manston Airport was sold for £1 last year, new owner Ann Cloag was optimistic about its prospects. In a statement issued at the time, she said:  “Whilst this is a loss making airport, I hope that with the co-operation of our neighbours and the wider community of Kent, the airport partners and staff, we can capitalise on the opportunities available to give Kent the best chance possible of having a successful and vibrant airport."

Manston Airport closure shock>>>

Just three months on comes an announcement that the airport is consulting on closure.

It is undeniably a big shock and appeared to come out of nowhere. Certainly, neither KCC or Thanet appeared to have had any prior notice. The 150 staff affected were told at a meeting this morning and were understandably dismayed. Thanet has an unenviable reputation as an economic blackspot and jobs are hard to come by.

Various factors contributed to the decision.

The most significant was that talks with Ryanair owner Michael O'Leary about bringing some routes to Manston had come to an end after the operator signalled it had its own financial difficulties. No airport can be sustained on a long-term basis without using its capacity and it is understood that even with the presence of KLM  and regular flights to Schipol, it was haemorraging money on a daily basis. There would have been no room for sentiment by  the consultants commissioned to investigate whether it had a future. 

Add in the uncertainty about what role Manston might have had in the aftermath of the Davies Commission and the ongoing issue about  the lack of good road connections and its peninsula location and Manston has been battling the odds for a long time.

And it is worth noting that Manston has also had to compete against the increasingly successful Southend Airport, whcih has become one of the fastest-growing airports in the UK.

This is not the first time Manston has, in its chequered history, faced the threat of closure. But you sense that this time, it is highly unlikely to survive. Given the hard-headed conclusions of the turnaround team brought in to assess its prospects, it is almost inconceivable that someone else could come in to give it a go.

The fact that the airport is consulting staff over closure - rather than putting it on the market - tells its own story. The airport insists that it is not ruling out that possibility but there is already speculation that developers are circling with an interest in developing it for houses, rather than for planes.

This time, it does feel like it is the end for Manston - at least as an airport.






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The Friday Five: the week's top political stories from Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 14 2014

Welcome to the Friday Five - my view of the week's most interesting stories from around Kent.

1. Education continued to top the political agenda in the county, with the week starting with news of a possible development in the long-running saga of the efforts to open a new satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks. After a series of knock backs, there was better news when The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School announced it was considering going co-educational so it could become the sponsor school for the annex. An important step forward but as I blogged, there is a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

2. Another long-running saga threw up an interesting twist down in Thanet, where the council continues to pick through the debris of its disastrous secret deal with ferry company Transeuropa, which left it having to write off £3.4m owed by the company. Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act revealed how council officials worried that potential Italian investors in the company could have Mafia links and might use the company to launder money. You don't often get to write a story with the words 'council' 'mafia' and 'money laundering' in the intro...

3. Back to education and cue a furore caused by the leak of a county council document to The Guardian outlining what could happen to headteachers who presided over failing schools in Kent. In short, KCC said they would be put on gardening leave and eased out. Unsurprisingly, this failed to get much support among heads, who decried the 'hire and fire' policy and compared the authority's approach to the dirty war waged by the military junta in Argentina where activists who opposed it were "disappeared."

4. You just can't can't keep the UKIP leader out of the news. No, we are not talking about certain allegations raised in Brussels about Nigel Farage's use of public allowances for the party but this - the court case involving a protestor who hit him over the head with a placard during a visit to Thanet.

5. The week ended on a sad note with the news of the death of lifelong Socialist Tony Benn. As to be predicted, it drew tributes from across the political divide although I suspect he would have regarded some of it as sentimental tosh. Over-used word in the many tributes was the reference to "left-wing firebrand." Sadly, I never interviewed him but I did go along to one of his theatre events. He talked and talked and talked - and then invited questions from the audience and continued to talk and talk some more. He was a bit like Fide Castro...

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Kent's political selection box: round-up of latest candidate news

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, July 30 2013

It is proving a busy month for those who have eyes on the county as a place to launch or take the next step in their political careers, so here is a round up of recent selection news:

Labour has chosen its parliamentary candidates for a further three of Kent's constituencies. In Thanet South, the party has nominated Will Scobie to take on Laura Sandys. He was elected to the county council in May - one of Labour's few succeses in Thanet - and is also a Thanet council member. He faces the challenge of overturning a 7,000+ majority. Despite being a youthful 24, he has plenty of political experience under his belt although social media has inevitably seen some adverse comments that he has no other "outside" experience beyond politics. From what I have seen at County Hall, he seems pretty sharp.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey Labour party has opted for Guy Nicholson, a Yorkshireman living in London who serves on Hackney council as cabinet member for regeneration and Olympic legacy. It is his first stab at fighting a general election. He faces the challenge of trying to overcome a 12,000+ majority in 2015. The seat was back in 2005 a "super marginal" with a narrow Labour majority of 79 but Gordon Brown's implosion turned the seat into a relatively secure Conservative one in 2010.

Finally, Gravesham has chosen local councillor Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, 34, a former Gravesham mayor who has strong local roots having attended Gravesend Grammar School and lived most of his life in the area. He has already notched up a political first - he became the youngest Sikh mayor of any counci in the UK in 2011. He is currently cabinet member for business and communities on the council. Adam Holloway held on to this seat with a majority of 9,312 in 2010 and Labour considers this a viable target although the party made relatively modest gains in the KCC election - a signal perhaps that it has plenty of work to do to win back disaffected voters.

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Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in the midst of choosing the candidates who will be on the regional list for the south east at next year's European elections. The convoluted selection process has a little while to run and party members are voting for candidates on two lists. In the south east, members have already picked the arch Euro-sceptic Dan Hannan and Nirj Deva - both already MEPs - as the two who will automatically go to the top of the list.

They are also deciding who should be on the general shortlist, the candidates who will make up the rest of the party's platform. The ranking depends on how many votes they each get and in the south east, there is some interest in how Richard Ashworth, the leader of the Conservative group in Brussels, will fare after he failed to make the top two. If he comes anywhere less than third on the ballot, he is unlikely to be returned to Parliament.

Also on the list is the Shepway councillor Rory Love.

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UKIP is already taking up its prospects of doing well at the European election but has yet to decide which names will be on its list. Hustings meetings were held at the weekend and 26 hopefuls put themselves forward. These will be whittled down to 12 in the coming weeks. Among those in the frame is the Tunbridge Wells councillor and former Kent crime commissioner candidate Piers Wauchope.

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Finally, the search is underway for the person the Conservatives want to replace the veteran Tonbridge and Malling MP Sir John Stanley. Sir John is retiring in 2015 and his departure opens up a rock solid safe Conservative seat that plenty of hopefuls have their eye on. It should be a high calibre shortlist when the constituency gets around to whittling down names in the Autumn.

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Categories: Localism | Politics

East Kent's imagined city fails to make the culture cut

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, June 19 2013

Bookmakers had long odds on East Kent being one of those shortlisted to become the UK City of Culture in 2017 and - not for the first or last time - were proved right.

Equally unsurprising is the reaction of those leading the bid,  who stretched credibility (unless they were being ironic, of course) by saying that the spirit of collaboration fostered by the bid would "long outlive our disappointment."

Some have suggested the bid failed because East Kent is not a city. But neither were some of the others in the running, such as the one by Hastings and Bexhill. That failed too but one not dissimilar to East Kent is in the final running - Swansea Bay.

In fact, the team behind the East Kent bid were rather canny in making a virtue of the fact that the area was not a city, building up a campaign based around the concept of an "imagined city" - which was counter-intuitive in a way that undoubtedly had some appeal but just might have been a little too clever.

There is no doubt that the area covered by the bid has become increasingly rich in culture over the years, notably the opening of the Turner gallery in Margate and more recently the redeveloped Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

But for all its cultural and artistic strengths,  the campaign never seemed to me to get much momentum and capture popular support. The very diverse nature of the towns involved may have been an issue here. People in Ashford don't really have a ready connection with Thanet, and the same could be said of the other areas.

Not many people say they come from "East Kent" - although they often say they come from Kent. Leaders of the bid would argue that was partly the point behind running - to use the bid to forge that sense of identity.

A separate issue is that the bid got off a low key start. The PR strategy was not so much a soft launch as one surrounded by feather-bedded cushions. You might have thought there ought to have been a press conference, for example.

As it was, the local Kent media had no forewarning that a bid was in the offing and on the day the government announced those who were applying, it was difficult to find who was behind it.

This may have have been because at the  time, Kent County Council was in the run-up to elections, constraining what politicians are able to say about any activity that might be construed as effecting support for a particular party.

Which brings me to the minor point that the campaign was being led by a council with its HQ in west Kent - Maidstone. Maybe the bid would have fared better under an east Kent unitary authority whose geographical boundaries covered the relevent area.

The campaign did pick up the pace and secured some celebrity endorsements which seem so vital in these things but with the political agenda being dominated by council elections throughout May, it seemed to me that it was rather overshadowed.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained and given the random nature of how decisions by panels of judges are sometimes reached, East Kent 2017 might have been hoping that if it had made the final cut, anything could have happened.

But as the bid document said  "like many frontier lands, we are yet to be fully explored."

Perhaps the East Kent frontiers just need to be crossed by rather more people before cultural critical mass is reached.

 

 

 

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UKIP's low key County Hall debut. And why did a council keep secret a deal with a ferry company?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 24 2013

It was rather a low key debut for the new 17-strong opposition UKIP group at County Hall this week, as councillors gathered for the first official meeting since the dramatic election.

You could hardly say there was a lot of raw politics about. Given this was largely a ceremonial meeting to appoint a new chairman and deal with some rather boring constitutional details, perhaps we should not have been surprised.

The ruling Conservatives remain a bit jittery about UKIP, that's clear -  but they had a relatively easy ride on this outing and were rather relieved not to have been put on the spot about anything that contentious.

Let's not forget that this was the first taste of County Hall politics that the 17 UKIP councillors had and there were probably a few "first-day-at-school" type nerves around. KCC can be a pretty intimidating place - as a couple of the newcomers confided. "The scale of this place is huge," said one.

Perhaps the nerves were responsible for a bit of a tangle that UKIP got into over the new allowances scheme - in other words, their pay.

The group's leader Roger Latchford said his group supported a freeze but went on to say that it was unfair that all opposition group leaders were getting the same special responsibility allowance.

The point seemed to be that UKIP was taking on the "formal" opposition role at KCC and therefore its shadow cabinet members ought to be entitled to more money. (Under the scheme, all oppostion groups leaders will get £6,316 plus an additional £500 for each member.) 

Whatever way you look at it, it came across as a request for more money from the taxpayers' pocket and a few Conservatives lost no time in making the point.

For a party that makes much of the need to curb public sector profligacy, it was not an altogether auspicious start. Let's put it down to finding their political feet.

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HOW did Thanet Council come to a position where it has found itself out of pocket to the tune of £3.3m after a secret deal with a ferry company went pear shaped?

And perhaps as importantly, why were details of the deal kept secret from councillors?

And was there a serious misjudgement by officers and members in allowing the debts to stack up and a failure to recognise warning signs?

These are just some of the questions facing the council after it emerged that it was having to raid its reserves to plug the £3.3m hole in its finances caused by the company, Transeuropa Ferries, going into administration.

It is staggering that the council has found itself in such a situation. It believed the deal, which allowed Transeurope to defer payments on harbour fees to the council, was justified to retain the company's presence in the town.

One of many problems it now faces is why the deal was kept secret and never shared with all members of the council, who should have had the opportunity to scrutinise it properly - even if it meant they had to do it behind closed doors as an exempt item.

It is not even clear whether the original deal that was agreed by the council's then Conservative administration was the subject of a cabinet decision or report. Ought not such a deal have been signed off by the executive under the proper executive decision-making process?

If it was a key cabinet decision - and it is hard to think why it would not have been - it should have been properly recorded and reported by the cabinet or cabinet member and then presented to the relevant scrutiny committee who would have had the power to call it in.

As far as we can tell, it wasn't - the council has not yet responded to a series of questions we have asked on this.

And not only that but why wasn't the deal flagged up in the council's last annual statement of accounts, where you might have expected it to feature?

Someone at the council will have to account for all of this but on the surface, it looks like a monumental mess that has left taxpayers likely to foot the bill.

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Categories: Precept

Could UKIP be the surprise election package?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Saturday, April 6 2013

If UKIP was a band, it would probably be the type that comfortably fills mid-size venues but hasn't quite reached the point at which it is capable of selling out big stadium tours. There is a sense in which its supporters are a bit like fans who consider they are in on the next big thing but might actually be a bit regretful if it became a mainstream success.

But there's no doubt plenty of people think it is on the cusp of making the crossover from cult band to chart toppers. Its PR people like to talk about a buzz around the party, a bit like A and R men.

A measure of this progress will, of course, be how it fares at the county council elections.

And the leadership has its eye on Kent as somewhere it can create a few ripples. It is fielding 76 candidates out of 84 - a record number and judging by the unbridled spirit of optimism at the launch of its Kent manifesto on Friday night in Gravesend, many think County Hall will have its first elected UKIP county councillors come May 3.

Actually, the event was not so much a manifesto launch (not much was mentioned about Kent at all) as much as a rally designed to raise spirits for the battle ahead.

More than 300 activists and supporters crammed into a hotel room to listen to Nigel Farage deliver a characteristically flamboyant and colourful speech, in which he fired broadsides at all the mainstream parties (Cameron - "no-one will ever believe him again"; Clegg - "hopeless"; Osborne - "hopeless"; Angela Merkel - "more miserable in private than she is in public"; Miliband - "who cares?") and declaimed like a evangelical preacher that the party's time had come.

Say what you like about him, but he certainly knows how to find a key part of the party's anatomy (in the way it was said of Michael Heseltine and the Tories).

One of his quips about his critics was telling: "They're writing me off as a populist now!" because it touched on why the three mainstream parties are so concerned aboout UKIP.  It has successfully exploited the widespread disenchantment with the big parties among voters who think they all look the same and say the same. It is that disaffection that meant second place in the Eastleigh by-election was depicted as a victory.

The forthcoming elections come at a good time for UKIP: mid-term in the life of any government is a bad time to be going to the polls for those in power and UKIP is picking up support from many Tories in the shire counties that disapprove of the party's position on gay marriage and harbour fears over the impact of immigration.

It has certainly leapfrogged the Lib Dems as the preferred repository of the protest vote. More than that, there is the fact that they have a much more organised campaign and activists willing to trudge the streets with leaflets - the kind of foot soldiers every party needs. And it already has councillors in Tunbridge Wells.

So, you can understand why it feels bouyant. I think the issue, however, is that while it could significantly build on its share of the vote across Kent it may end up in second place in lots of areas, just falling short of victory.

Nigel Farage is typically robust in his assessment, saying it would be a major surprise if Kent - his home county - doesn't have UKIP county councillors next month. He won't say but the target areas are Thanet and Tunbridge Wells, with north Kent also in its sights.

When I asked him if he would have a bet on UKIP holding the balance of power at County Hall, he said he would have to look at the odds. But his smile suggested it may be something the party has contemplated as a possibility.

Such a result is the UKIP dream scenario and the Conservatives' nightmare, which accounts for the current jitters in Tory ranks.

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Among UKIP's candidates is another defecting Tory.  Roger Latchford, who was at one point deputy Conservative leader of Thanet council, has defected and will contest the Birchington and Villages division in Thanet.

Another former Tory, Brian Ransley, once a cabinet member in Tunbridge Wells council until he lost his seat to the Lib Dems, is standing in Tunbridge Wells North.




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Categories: National Politics

We need to know more before we can exonerate the company from blame

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, February 2 2011

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..

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Categories: Business

Pfizer: Alarm bells have been ringing for some time

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Tuesday, February 1 2011

PFIZER, which earned worldwide fame for discovering the Viagra anti-impotence drug, has been a key part of Kent’s business scene for more than half a century.

It is a flagship name that has had a major impact on the East Kent economy and been used to promote the county as a great place for Blue Chip companies.

With 2,400 people thrown onto the dole and scores of businesses losing valuable Pfizer business, this is a single blow to the heart of the Kent economy that is unparalleled in recent times. Yet warning bells have been ringing for some time.

After years of expansion, the company began cutting jobs worldwide, with Sandwich one of several plants to be hit. The New York-based business halted manufacturing with the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Yet it was manufacturing that was the Sandwich plant’s key activity for more than 50 years.

It shows just how vulnerable local economies are to global decisions made in remote boardrooms with no loyalty to a particular site or region.

The American firm had won early success for mass-production penicillin but the discovery of an anti-biotic in 1949 transformed Pfizer into an international pharmaceutical company.

Due to huge demand, this drug called Terramycint was imported into the UK from the States but this involved numerous delays.

The solution was to manufacture the drug and in 1952 Folkestone was chosen as the most suitable location for a new compounding operation.

However, the British Government restricted sales unless the drug was fully manufactured in Britain. So Pfizer decided to create a new manufacturing plant, and homed in on a derelict 80-acre site close to the River Stour. Government grants were on offer and so the Sandwich operation began in 1954.

Huge expansion followed, with handsome new buildings housing some of the finest research and development laboratories in the world. Staff numbers rose rapidly to more than 5,000. Since 1998, the company has invested almost a billion pounds in the Sandwich plant, and countless millions of pounds before that.

It was a story of continuous success and discovery, tempered by occasional public protest over its animal testing programme.

Pfizer has been an economic powerhouse for East Kent, prospering at a time when the rest of the area was struggling. It is fair to say that the economic decline of Thanet and the surrounding area would have been far more serious but for Pfizer’s presence.

But such splendid isolation came at a price. Pfizer struggled to attract the best scientists to a place perceived as being too far from the mainstream. Pfizer complained about transport links and shortage of good quality housing for their senior staff. But the company came up with a stream of good discoveries, notably Viagra, and manufactured a wide range of successful products.

Gradually, its influence paid dividends and a new road was built. But the recruitment challenge remained and dozens of marketing staff were transferred to Surrey.

As the world-wide pharmaceutical industry became more competitive, Pfizer came under mounting pressure. There have been regular job losses over the past few years as Pfizer consolidated.

A few years ago, Its New York headquarters recently announced plans to axe 10,000 jobs at its plants worldwide. The company has been hit by fierce competition and downward price pressure after drugs came out their restricted licensing period, While rumours of closure have been around for sometime, no one really thought the unthinkable would ever happen.

Now it has. Without Pfizer dominating the Sandwich skyline and the East Kent economy like a colossus, the future for the area looks pretty grim.

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Categories: Business

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