EIGHTY years of bus manufacturing in Blackburn is set to come to an end after Optare said its operation will move to Yorkshire.

Bosses at the company said that, from March 31, manufacturing would be consolidated to a newly-opened plant in Sherburn, near Leeds.

The firm’s site in Lower Philips Road, Whitebirk, will be used instead for storage and for specialist conversion work.

All 99 people employed in Blackburn have been issued with redundancy notices.

Up to 40 jobs in Blackburn will remain, with other employees given an opportunity to transfer to Yorkshire.

Community and business leaders have described the move as a ‘terrible blow’ for the town.

Buses have been manufactured in Blackburn since 1934, originally by East Lancashire Coach-builders.

It merged with the Darwen Group and Optare in 2008, with bases in Blackburn and Leeds.

At the time 320 people were employed in Blackburn, although hundreds more had been employed during the 1960s and 70s.

Yesterday staff were warned they faced being disciplined for gross misconduct if they spoke to the Lancashire Telegraph.

The site is not represented by a union.

Steve Johnson, group marketing manager, said: “The Blackburn site will remain active as a storage facility for the company, for engineering development, and for limited specialist vehicle conversion work.

“A protective HR1 redundancy notice covering 99 people has been formally issued, but employment positions exist at all levels on the Sherburn site, and all affected employees will be offered the opportunity to transfer.

“Those employees will be consulted collectively and individually over the coming weeks regarding such opportunities.”

Since the 2008 merger, Optare has implemented painful measures to survive the economic downturn, including initially slashing its Blackburn workforce from 320 to 210.

Jobs then continued to go at the site, including switching 50 jobs to a now-defunct base in Leeds in August 2010, which prompted the first fears that the business could quit Lancashire.

In the past 18 months the company had given a number of reassurances that it was committed to East Lancashire.

In August 2010, chief executive Jim Sumner told the Lancashire Telegraph: “The intention is to grow Blackburn and bring more high-quality jobs there. That is a long-term commitment to the area.”

Mike Damms, chief executive of the East Lancashire Chamber of Trade, said he “wasn’t surprised” by the latest news.

He said: “It’s bad news and I’m sorry to hear it’s happened, but it’s been flagged for a while - it’s been known that Optare’s Yorkshire operation is the stronger side of things.

“The transfer offer is nice, but realistically it tends to be the senior managers that move, as community ties are strong for most.”

Mr Damms also said that he was pleased that a “genetic link” to East Lancashire would remain at Optare, as Darwen-based WEC Group last year struck a £10million deal with the company to fabricate bus components at its own Sherburn site.

A spokesman for WEC Group said they were unaware of the Optare news and would not be involved in the jobs transfer to Sherburn.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “It is obviously a sad day to see an East Lancashire tradition go.

"I understand the commercial logic which has faced the company and I’m glad they are making every effort to relocate staff or provide them with a redundancy package.

“There’s no question the bus industry is a highly competitive market. I just hope some jobs can be retained on this side of the Pennines and on an individual level I’ll help any employees as they face difficulties.”

Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Kate Hollern said that officers were working with the company to try to stem job losses.

She said: “It’s very sad that history is being lost, but we’re doing everything we can to create new jobs.”