RUNCORN was left reeling this week from a double blow which saw more than 180 jobs axed in just two days.
Now experts fear the losses could herald the beginning of the recession and threaten thousands more jobs at manufacturing firms in the town.
And the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has announced it is to shut its Runcorn operation with the loss of 91 jobs.
European Vinyl Corporation in Runcorn is shedding 50 jobs at its plant in the town and 40 at its factory in Helsby.
Work at the ONS site near Halton Lea will be transferred to Newport, South Wales from next April and the site will be closed by the following March.
The news was described as 'disappointing' by civil service union chiefs, who believe the Runcorn operation should have been expanded rather than shut down.
Announcing the long-expected decision Len Cook, the national Statistician and Registrar General for England and Wales, said: 'There will be big changes in our business and in the way we work over the next four to five years.
'The transfer of business from Runcorn to Newport will create efficiency and flexibility as larger sites provide a better mix of skills and career development opportunities. This will help us to strengthen our statistical services.
'This is the only solution that gives us certainty. That is important for us and our staff. There is no other option that could not have left ongoing doubt over Runcorn's future.
'Runcorn staff have made a very positive contribution to the work of the service over the last five years and we will certainly be happy to enable staff to transfer to other parts of the ONS with relocation expenses reimbursed.
'Where that is not possible we are determined to do everything we can to help staff find jobs in other government departments in the area.'
But Ro Marsh, spokeswoman for the FDA union which represents 11,000 civil servants, blasted the decision.
She said: 'The closure of the Runcorn operation is a severe blow to an already depressed part of the country. It is a sad day for the North West.
'This government agency pulling out of Runcorn marks the reversal of plans from the early 90s to move civil service jobs out of London.
'The North West was planned to be a centre for the production of labour market statistics. We asked the minister many times why the Runcorn site should not expand rather than close, especially given recruitment problems in London, but we never had an answer.'
Most of the work, which also relies on up to 40 casual staff, involves processing statistical returns from businesses.
The redundancies at EVC are likely to include many scientific research posts as well as production workers.
More than 300 staff at the two plants also face changes in their terms and conditions as a result of the restructuring, which bosses hope will save £3m.
It is understood that EVC will be consulting employees and unions on propsals to increase the working week from 36-40 hours over a four-week period.
It is also looking at changes in salaries, bonus schemes, health insurance and pensions.
A spokesman for the firm said the move was designed to streamline the company to help it survive difficult market conditions.
EVC was taken over in March by Belgian chlorine producer Ineos Chlor.
A fortnight ago Ineos warned the Runcorn chlorine plant would die 'a slow death' without a £635m revamp of the site.
Industry experts and union bosses warned the redundancies could be an early sign of a chain reaction between the interdependent chain cluster of companies which make up the North West chemical belt.