Back UK auto-industry – or risk losing it call

‘Historic’ car production lows underscore urgent need for govt intervention

Reading time: 5 min

In 1954 at the heart of the Cold War, the Soviet Union ceases to demand war reparations from West Germany, Aneurin Bevan resigns from the shadow cabinet, Marilyn Munroe marries Joe DiMaggio and Bill Haley recorded Rock around the clock.

While young Brits were bopping away to the new rock ‘n’ roll phenomena, wartime rationing came to end and less than 400,000 cars were made – historically the lowest recorded production figure – that is until now.

According to the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), figures released today (July 30) show UK automotive production during the first half of 2020 is down to its lowest level since 1954.

The SMMT report that a total of 381,357 cars were made in the six months to June, down 48 per cent on the same period last year, with just 56,594 units made – as social distancing measures and weak demand across global markets continued to restrict output.

June’s manufacturing for car sales in the UK market was down by 63 per cent, while exports were 45 per cent lower as the lockdown began to really bite.

The UK’s biggest carmakers all suspended production earlier in the year in response to the Covid-19 lockdown, including Jaguar Land Rover, Honda and Nissan. And the SMMT also estimates that 11,349 jobs were lost in the past six months at carmakers and companies which supply them with parts and services.

‘Grim reading’

“These figures are yet more grim reading for the industry and its workforce, and reveal the difficulties all automotive businesses face as they try to restart while tackling sectoral challenges like no other,” said SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes.

He added, “Recovery is difficult for all companies, but automotive is unique in facing immense technological shifts, business uncertainty and a fundamental change to trading conditions while dealing with coronavirus.”

UK car output was forecast to hit two million in 2020, but deteriorating market conditions compounded by Covid-19 are likely to cut that number by more than half, he said.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed. “Buffeted by the twin forces of the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing challenges Brexit poses to the sector, the future of the UK’s world leading automotive sector and the thousands of well-paid and skilled jobs that come with it, is in doubt,” he stated.

“These historic lows in production show the industry is standing at a crossroads. Either the government leaves it to become a shadow of its former self, or it provides the support and investment needed for it flourish as a producer of the next generation of cleaner cars.”

Turner firmly believes that, “UK vehicle manufacturers have a vital role to play in the country’s, and indeed the world’s, transition to low carbon, but they cannot do this until the government lays the groundwork.

“It is clear that in the immediate term the nation is not yet in a position to switch to the widescale use of electric cars.”

He explains that to allow the industry time to pivot to new technologies and take decisive steps in lowering both the carbon footprint and air pollution, support must be given for the purchase of UK-built low-emission internal combustion engines and hybrid vehicles.

‘Govt comprehensive programme of investment needed’ 

Turner continues, “At the same time, the government needs to enact a comprehensive programme of investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, including expanding the network of fast charging points, and the UK-based manufacture of vehicles and components. It cannot be stressed enough that this must include developing electric transit-sized vans for commercial use.

“Thousands of jobs have already been lost, and thousands more are at risk, hurting communities and diminishing the capacity, skills and experience the sector is built on. The simple truth is that we need the automotive industry and its workers if the UK is to turn the challenges ahead into successes.”

Other governments have taken a different approach to saving their manufacturing industries.

“The German government has taken action, its support for short time working during the fall out from the financial crash in 2008 safeguarded 450,000 jobs that are the bedrock of its auto-industry and along with Spain and France has announced a support package for the sector now to do so again,” says Turner.

“UK ministers must now back Britain, look to the country’s future and do the same.”

The message to this government couldn’t be clearer. Stop rocking around the clock and take serious steps to support, protect and promote Britain’s outstanding automotive industry – before time runs out and the humming and droning from our world-class factory floors stop – forever.

Compiled by Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite

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