THE opening of the Michelin factory in Burnley in 1960 brought hopes of a brave new world for engineering in the town.

Against a background of the collapse of traditional industries like textiles and heavy engineering, the arrival of the French multinational was a breath of fresh air.

A purpose-built factory at the Heasandford Industrial Estate brought bright, modern working conditions that were unheard of in East Lancashire. Sports and social facilities introduced by Michelin were years ahead of their time and the company was widely regarded as a model employer.

But the announcement that the 36-acre Burnley site is scheduled to close in Spring next year will not come as too much of a surprise to the remaining workforce.

A question mark has hung over the operation since the mid 1980s. From a peak of more than 1,000 workers in the 1970s, numbers have dropped steadily to the 452 who will be receiving their notice of redundancy.

In 1985, the wheel-making plant was closed with the loss of 200 jobs and the remainder of the jobs were only saved when the French owners finally agreed to a £3.5 million modernisation programme.

Throughout the 1990s, a series of relatively small-scale redundancies reduced the size of the workforce. At Christmas 2000 and in June this year, workers were effectively laid off for week-long 'extended holidays' in a bid to reduce overheads. In a bitter pay dispute earlier this year, the company threatened to withdraw additional long-service holidays and to axe the premium paid for weekend shifts.

The Burnley factory is the smallest of Michelin's 80 international manufacturing plants. Current production is running at only 20 per cent of capacity and the company has ruled out a major reinvestment programme on the grounds of cost.

Michelin argues that Burnley's current production of truck and bus tyres can be accommodated within its much larger plants.

The company is blaming falling sales in the USA and Europe for its current crisis. In its half-year results for the six months up to June 30 2001, Michelin said sales of tyres for new trucks in the US had fallen by 42 per cent while the replacement market was down by more than 10 per cent.

The company said sales in continental Europe - which account for 80 per cent of production from Burnley - were also struggling.

But despite the grim sales figures, there was no sign from chief executive officer Edouard Michelin that two major manufacturing plants in the UK were destined to close.

At the company's annual meeting held only last month, he spoke about Michelin's "caring policy for a winning company".

Said Mr Michelin: "The Group has a profound regard for the quality of human relationships and employee dialogue."

He acknowledged the criticism the company had received following the closure of the Soissons site in France in 1999, but highlighted the fact that action taken by the company had created more new jobs in the area than those that had been lost.

The Burnley workforce will be hoping for a similar commitment from the company which has already promised generous redundancy terms and a programme of co-operation with enterprise and employment agencies in the region.