For a 100 years the name Longbridge cast its shadow across Britain’s manufacturing industry. Throughout a century when the ability to make motor cars defined an economy’s industrial clout, the plant – brainchild of one of Britain’s automotive pioneers, Herbert Austin – was a standard bearer of British-owned volume car production.
The Independent are covering the anniversary that ten years ago this week, however, production ground to a halt and more than 6,000 workers at the Birmingham plant and many others in the region lost their jobs.
The end came on 8 April, when MG Rover went into administration after failing to secure a rescue partnership with Chinese state-owned carmaker the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).
Today, a new town is emerging from the sprawling 468-acre site as part of a £1bn regeneration programme, one of the biggest in Britain, which could take another decade or more to complete.
The UK automotive industry is also motoring. In a single week at the end of March, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and Geely, the Chinese owner of the London Taxi Company, announced combined investments of more than £1bn at their UK factories.
By the time the Longbridge project is finished, St Modwen, the property company that is redeveloping the site, says it will provide 10,000 jobs (more than 3,500 have already arrived), 2,000 new homes, a town centre (Sainsbury’s has already moved in; M&S is on the way), schools, leisure facilities and almost 2 million square feet of offices, distribution and industrial space, including an innovation centre and technology park.
The old engine plant is now a housing development, and work has begun on a retirement village. A park has replaced a press shop and there is even a creche – a surprising survivor from carmaking days.
Unemployment in the area has fallen to around or below pre-Rover-crash levels. But Richard Halstead, Midlands regional director of manufacturers’ group the EEF, says it was more than a question of jobs. The impact was also felt, he says, in ways not captured by the raw unemployment figures: “There was a big impact on the perception of the sector and on careers in the sector. The perception was that manufacturing was not a place you wanted to develop a career.”
In a region where the skills base had already been hit by contractions over previous years, that was a serious blow, and one which is still being felt. As manufacturing recovers from the post-crisis recession, Halstead notes that the three main preoccupations of his members are: “Skills, skills, skills.”
Richard Burden, long-serving Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, is another who believes that, damaging as the closure was for the local economy, its impact went deeper: “Longbridge was part of the way people defined themselves. It was part of their identity. What happened went to the core of that: what the plant was, what the community was, what their future was, what their children’s futures would be.”
It is generally accepted that achieving this ambition has been helped along by a steady development of new homes and jobs. The most visible sign of life is the arrival of the Bournville College and its £66m facility, which brings a daily influx of students.
Longbridge’s automotive past has not been entirely swept away. While it was the collapse of a deal with a Chinese backer that sealed Rover’s fate, China did not turn its back on Birmingham. After the closure, part of the plant was bought by Nanjing Automotive – which in 2007 was essentially taken over by SAIC, the company that had failed to become Rover’s saviour.
The group has chosen to place its UK research and development at the Longbridge facility, which now employs more than 400 people on design and engineering work. Motor manufacturing began again in 2008, with a small production line building MG sports cars.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, acknowledges that, after the crisis triggered by the closure of Longbridge, he is relieved at the way events are unfolding. Development of the site is an integral part of the council’s overall economic plan, but it goes beyond that: “What we have is something that can call itself Longbridge, which is clearly identified, not with a single manufacturing plant… but with housing, retail, job opportunities, further education and so on. We have a new Longbridge emerging.”
The demise of MG Rover and the closure of Longbridge were widely seen as yet another stage in the slow decline of Britain’s automotive industry. Indeed for many it was hard to see how things could get worse. In 2004, the year before Rover closed its doors, Britain produced 1.65m passenger cars. The following year, even without Rover, it made 1.6m. In 2009, in the downturn following the global banking crisis, however, production slumped, with UK car plants turning out just 1m vehicles.
Their faith in UK manufacturing capability was rewarded. Demand picked up and production recovered. By last year, according to motor industry body the SMMT, car production had topped 1.528m vehicles in the best year since 2007.
Though sales to the European Union, a key market for UK marques, were hard hit, exports to destinations including China, Russia and the US helped boost demand. Britain now exports four out of every five cars it builds. In the first three months of 2012, for example, the UK clocked up a positive balance of payments in cars for the first time since 1976, meaning the country earned more from selling vehicles abroad than it spent on importing them.
At the same time, sales in the UK have soared as motorists make the best of low interest rates or opt for personal contract hire plans that allow the user to lease their car for a set period, then trade it in for a newer model.
In the past two years, more than £7bn has been invested in UK car production facilities, with several new models coming on stream. Last month Jaguar Land Rover announced plans to spend £600m at its West Midlands site, including £450m for the manufacture of the Jaguar-XF aluminium-bodied car in Castle Bromwich.
In Coventry, the company plans to double the size of its headquarters, adding a centre for research and advanced engineering. The expansion could indirectly create between 7,000 and 11,000 more jobs through the supply chain, and involves the purchase of a 62-acre site.
In another boost for Coventry, Geely unveiled plans to create 1,000 jobs at a £250m plant building low-emission black cabs.
Then Honda secured the future of its Swindon factory with a £200m investment in making a five-door version of its Civic hatchback, one of its most popular European models. Honda had cut jobs and production at Swindon two years ago, but the news has laid to rest fears the plant could be mothballed. Honda’s head of European operations, Toshiaki Mikoshiba, has unveiled four new models for the European market and says that the company has a “renewed optimism and purpose in Europe”.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, declared that it had been “a fantastic week for UK automotive”. There was, he said, no precedent for as much investment in the industry in such a short period. “UK car manufacturing is now more diverse than ever, with a unique combination of volume, premium and specialist brands giving our products truly global appeal.”
Back at Longbridge, the last Austin Metro rolled off the production line a long time ago, but the name of British motoring’s founding father lives on in the newly created Austin Park. Here the river Rea, which had been buried in a culvert to make way for industrial development, has been brought back to the surface. Illuminated for a festival of light last October, it runs all the way to Birmingham city centre and has caught the eye of a new generation of town planners, who are wondering whether a cycle route linking the centre to the suburbs might help to transform a very car-centric city. At Longbridge, that transformation is already well under way.