Until last month the worst that anyone could recall the river Don doing to Thessco’s Sheffield premises was the occasional brief incursion into its riverside car park. Now a dark tide mark, chest-high inside Thessco’s factory, records the extent of the destruction from some of Britain’s worst floods in decades.
James Tear, deputy managing director of the family-owned company that has been making precious metal alloys in the northern English city since 1760, explains how water poured through its 10-acre site, wrecking machines and supplies. “It was like being hit by a tidal wave,” he says.
Britain’s wettest June on record brought extensive flooding to parts of northern and central England and killed four people. Sheffield was among the areas worst affected after rivers burst their banks.
Amazingly, Thessco has salvaged some customer orders and is doing what it can to get running. But Mr Tear expects six to nine months of disruption before the damage can be put right.
Next door, the situation is just as grim at British Silverware, 200 years old and owned by members of Mr Tear’s family. Its factory and showroom are covered with mud and debris. Sodden packing boxes destined for Harrods and other upmarket stores are strewn around.
Untouched among the wreckage is a dining table, set for four to show off the high quality cutlery for which Sheffield is famous. Lifted by floodwater and set down gently when the water receded, its glasses are upright, its napkins dry on pristine plates. The rest, as Mr Tear says, is “carnage”.
It is 10 days since Sheffield was deluged with a month’s rain within a few hours but the tough times are only just starting for its metalworkers and engineering companies.
The disaster has cast doubt upon the survival of some companies. Evidence of high failure rates for businesses hit by natural disasters are sobering and many have been inadequately insured. Of two dozen manufacturers that met this week to discuss their future, about half said they had no “business interruption” insurance to tide them over a long clean-up. The affected manufacturers range from sole traders to companies with hundreds of staff. One estimate says up to 5,000 industrial jobs in Sheffield and further along the valley in Rotherham could be at risk.
Even those relatively confident of restarting do not know how resilient their markets will prove. Mr Tear, whose company was breaking into the rest of Europe, says: “The unknown quantity is whether customers will hang on in with you.”
Alan Reid, the city’s “master cutler” and owner of a 150-year-old toolmaking company where 200 machine motors have to be stripped and dried out after the floods, wants the government to provide bridging finance and 100 per cent capital allowances to allow businesses to replace machinery. But there has been no response, while an offer of £2,500 from the regional development agency to help businesses with non-insured losses is considered derisory by many manufacturers.
David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Small businesses in particular are going to need some form of intensive support.”
Banks are sounding a helpful note. But it will take all of the ingenuity learnt in centuries of production if some of Sheffield’s manufacturers are to recover from the devastation wreaked by a river that was once such an ally.
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