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PM urged to back bid for factory at heart of Britain’s food supply

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Closure of CF Fertilisers' plant at Ince would leave UK reliant on just one fertiliser factory - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Closure of CF Fertilisers' plant at Ince would leave UK reliant on just one fertiliser factory - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A group trying to take over one of Britain's last fertiliser plants will this week appeal to Boris Johnson for support after ministers refused to back the rescue bid.

A group of UK investors, backed by former Army chief Lord Dannatt, has been holding talks with US giant CF Industries about buying the Ince plant in Cheshire for the last six months. It has been seeking assurances from the Government to help smooth a path to the deal but has so far been unsuccessful.

The Ince plant is one of only two fertiliser factories in Britain and is a key supplier of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fertiliser production, to industry. CO2 is used in everything from surgical operations and meat processing.

CF Industries last month announced plans to shut the Ince plant in August, leaving the consortium, called UK Nitrogen, just weeks to secure a deal. The group plans to approach the Prime Minister through an intermediary this week to directly lobby for support.

A spokesman for UK Nitrogen said: "We are asking about some of the environmental and gas issues with the plant. You would need quick action on those given the timescales.

"We are not asking for any taxpayer money at all, we just need help facilitating some environmental hurdles. Also, this would be a non-runner without its people.

"These facilities are extremely important and we feel they should be under UK management and UK ownership."

A permanent shutdown of Ince could weaken Britain's food supply chain and pose a risk to key supplies of CO2.

The National Farmers Union, the Agricultural Industries Confederation and the British Meat Processors Association have all warned that the Ince plant's closure could leave the farming industry overly reliant on one fertiliser factory in Billingham, Teeside, for domestic supplies.

It is understood the UK Nitrogen consortium first launched early stage discussions about a takeover in January but have so far been rebuffed by the company.

The consortium has asked the Government to provide assurances about the supply of gas to the facility as well as help with the carbon taxes, which could help unlock negotiations.

The Government provided a multi-million pound subsidy to CF Industries to keep the Billingham factory open in September over fears about a lack of supply of carbon dioxide.

UK fertiliser CF Industries UK food supply - BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images
UK fertiliser CF Industries UK food supply - BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesman for UK Nitrogen said the Government has been aware of all of the discussions with CF Industries.

It is understood that the consortium would need to secure a deal within weeks before the plant loses all of the skilled staff, who are set to be let go in early August by CF Industries.

The spokesman said: "There was very limited support from the Business Department on key areas, which hasn't helped facilitate the transaction.

"We are still hopeful that the matter can come through.”

Business minister Lee Rowley urged CF Industries to find a buyer for the Ince plant on 8 June and then held talks with UK Nitrogen group on 27 June.

The consortium has so far declined to name its investors. A spokesman said the group had tabled a "very significant sum" and has a board of executives ready to take on the business.

But CF Industries said it had not received any offers that could keep the Ince plant running.

A spokesman for CF Industries said: "CF Industries has spoken with several parties. In the course of those discussions, at no point thus far have the parameters of any transaction - proposed or outlined - appeared likely to secure the long-term future of the Ince manufacturing facility and its employees."

CF Industries has said it can no longer afford to keep the plant open due to spiralling gas prices and high environmental taxes.

The Mail on Sunday first reported Lord Dannatt's bid to take on the Ince plant. The paper reported that talks with CF Industries were at a "sensitive stage".

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