Automotive revival shows hope for community and skills

Features editor

It would be difficult for a new volume car maker to arise in the UK, but the expertise and supply chains in the industry’s historic strongholds are still strong

It’s always welcome to be able to comment on some good news. This week we reported that Bentley is to build a £40million new R&D centre in its historic homeland of Crewe, where it is looking to develop a new SUV model while today a new report issued by Lloyds Bank is predicting that the automotive sector is to create almost 50,000 new jobs over the next two years as companies ‘reshore’ — bringing manufacturing operations back to the UK.

Of course prediction is very difficult, especially — as Niels Bohr famously said — when it’s about the future. Lloyds surveved 100 automotive companies which it describes as ‘English’ in October of this year, and found that 45 of them had already reshored on average a fifth of their production, while 76 expected to grow by up to 25 per cent over the next two years.

Bentlry still makes models like the Continental GT at its Crewe plant

As with Bentley’s Crewe announcement, many of the companies cited the strength of local supply chains as a reason for wanting to come back, along with a wish to support local communities. This is something that seems to have been missing for a long time. Some of the historic ‘car towns’, where automotive manufacturing was an important part of the local community, are still healthy – Coventry, with Jaguar flying high; Halewood, Solihull and Castle Bromwich, with Land Rover; and also Crewe, with its long association with both Rolls Royce and Bentley. The Northeast has Nissan’s major factory, while Swindon has Honda. The numbers employed are, unfortunately, nowhere hear the levels seen in previous decades; but the pool of engineering skills remain, as does the support for local component manufacturers.

The development the manufacturers are looking to make don’t look to the past, however. Nearly two-thirds of respondents wanted to look at low carbon and electric technologies, and told Lloyds they were looking to upskill or change processes to reflect this, with firms saying they would dedicate an average of 21 per cent of annual turnover to R&D by the end of 2016.

We’ve been saying for some time that the UK is seen as a place to do mould-breaking work; Nissan’s development of its Leaf and Qashqai models at its UK R&D facility, which is now testing a ‘self-cleaning’ coating which it has developed, was strong evidence for this, but this Lloyds survey adds more.

The automotive sector is changing around the world in terms of both the cars it makes and how it makes them, but the UK seems to be maintaining its place at the forefront of those changes. It would be even more welcome if we could see new players taking form, but the nearest candidate for that would seem to be McLaren, which is cementing its position as a British rival to Porsche by launching a new mid-price models next year. It’s clearly never going to make cars for a mass market, though. Is there any way that a volume producer could hope to arise in today’s market? It’s difficult to see how; but the pools of expertise and suppliers are certainly there if anyone has the ideas and the nerve, and can get the backing, to give it a go.