KEYS have been handed over to a new multimillion- pound munitions plant which will secure jobs on Wearside.
The £75million development on the site of the old Dunlop factory in Washington will be the new home of BAE Systems, which has been based in Birtley since 1916.
From next month, production will be transferred from the site at Birtley, which will close next year.
A new hi-tech forge has already been installed in the new factory and much of the new equipment is already up and running at Birtley, so that the transfer can take place without interrupting vital supplies to troops, including those fighting in Afghanistan.
As well as employing hundreds of local people, BAE Systems supplies 80 per cent of the artillery needed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), thanks to a £2billion agreement with the MoD which was signed in 2008.
Site boss Lee Smurthwaite, 40, from Hartlepool, said: “These are exciting times for our people.
“All the Washington buildings are now complete and we want to get on with the move.
“We took employees round the new plant with their managers last week because we want their suggestions on layouts and workflow.”
Employees from the 350-strong workforce had a big say in designing the new site, which includes a gym, drying rooms for those who cycle to work, internet access and a learning centre.
The new plant will also be eco-friendly, with 75 per cent of its waste water recycled.
Transformation manager Simon Miller, 39, from Chester-le-Street, said: “We believe we will have the most efficient munitions facility in the world.
“It gives our UK troops a capability which they can rely on and we have a proud history of making munitions for 95 years at the Birtley facility.”
Worker Brian Hewitson, 55, from Ouston, has been with BAE Systems for nearly 40 years.
He said: “I think it is a very good move.
“The old place is 95 years old and there are a few leaks and creaks.”
The site at Birtley will be redeveloped for housing after its closure in summer 2012 and there are plans to move some parts of the old plant to Beamish Museum.