A UK Motor Industry: Romance or Reality?
Today’s FT finds Jonathan Guthrie on combative form. Discussing the motor industry, he argues (‘An industry running on romance alone‘): “Cars themselves, through convergent evolution, have achieved a peak of excellence that renders them uniform”, but adds, “Yet still consumers love them. Governments too. Status-conscious premiers fear that unless they support something vaguely resembling an indigenous car industry, other first ministers will thump them and pinch their lunch money at the G20”.
Guthrie picks an interesting week to discuss the motor industry. A week that began with Nissan’s announcement of more than £200m to be invested over five years in a new battery factory to service electric cars, creating 350 jobs and bringing the promise of electric car production to Sunderland.
Guthrie is not quite correct when he says that consumers love cars and he is certainly wrong to describe them as uniform. Petrol-heads like me love cars and we see nothing uniform about them. The new MINI, for example, built at Cowley, combines BMW quality engineering with beautiful design, and is a huge success. The TUC has long supported arguments that once-superfluous factors like design are critical in moving towards high value manufacturing.
Yet for others, for whom a car is simply a means of getting from A to B, the love is less for the car and more for the freedom it brings. Either way, we are all conscious, in the modern world, that if we want the freedom to drive without destroying the planet, initiatives like that at Nissan are vital. The “peak of excellence” has not yet been achieved and excellence in green cars must be the goal.
Regarding an indigenous car industry, ‘An Independent Report on the Future of the UK Automotive Industry‘, published in May this year by the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT), notes that the UK has seen a disproportionate share of plant closures since 2002, adding that “the UK suffers partially from the lack of a national champion”. No indigenous car industry seems to mean the loss of plants and motor industry jobs.
Does any of this matter? As Jonathan Guthrie points out, carmakers have the capacity to make 20m more vehicles a year than anyone can buy. Well, for trade unions, representing members in the motor industry, of course it matters. Furthermore, in the words of the NAIGT report: “The UK automotive industry has transformed itself in the last decade from a sector with turbulent labour relations and a poor reputation for quality and productivity to one that is fully competitive. Independent external reliability surveys put UK built cars at the top of the rankings, and productivity and labour relations are among the best in the world.”
No sensible Government would discard this success, especially when we have all the ingredients to build the next generation of electric cars here as well. The future of motor cars must be green. If that is to be achieved, the UK, our companies and our workers, have a major role to play for many years to come.