Future shock

There is a sad but inevitable sense of déjà vu surrounding news that Peugeot Citroen is to shut its Ryton car plant in Coventry.

As news of the closure emerged, Peugeot’s management and the plant’s unions geared up for what has almost become a ritual exchange.

The phrases are familiar. Favourites on the one side include ‘difficult decision,’ ‘high costs’ and ‘tough market conditions.’ From the other comes ‘betrayal of loyalty’ and ‘government must act.’

They are familiar most recently, of course, from the collapse of Rover, the last major disaster before Ryton to be visited on the proud automotive manufacturing heritage of the West Midlands.

Rover and Ryton create headlines and tug at the heartstrings because the car industry is so intimately bound up with the economy, and in some senses the very essence, of that region. The same could be said of Vauxhall at Luton, another recent victim.

It will be no comfort whatsoever to those whose jobs are threatened, but the Ryton closure is a high-profile example of a drama that is played out on a smaller scale up and down the UK every week of the year.

It reminds us yet again that in the era of globalisation, security is a scarce commodity. This is especially true for facilities such as Ryton which are mainly concerned with the business of assembly, for it is always tempting for companies to question whether what is being assembled in one place can be done more cheaply elsewhere.

The fatal blow is especially cruel for the Coventry workers because it is just a few short years since the all-conquering 206, made at Ryton, was being hailed as a triumph.

Calls on the government to act are sure to fall on deaf ears, especially given the ignominy of the last state intervention and its backing of the ‘save Rover’ consortium.

Where the government can help is to look not to the past, but to the future. Point one. Not including Ryton, the UK is producing a near-record amount of cars for the likes of Nissan and Toyota. Everything the government can do to keep those operations in the UK should be done.

But as Ryton proves, nothing can be taken for granted. So as an engineering and technology economy, we need to have our eggs in several baskets.

One particularly promising basket is medical technology, and its associated requirement for high-skill, high-value engineering.

One of the largest projects on the blocks in this field concerns plans for a new medical technology park at a place called Ansty. If these plans come to fruition, Ansty will become an international hub for medical technology research and medical precision engineering. There is talk of 5,000 new jobs.

Ansty is a few miles around the Coventry ring road from Ryton. The best present the government could give the people of the West Midlands is to do all it can to make sure this and other similar initiatives give the area a bright future to match its proud heritage.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer & The Engineer Online