Wheel base

The following headlines may seem strangely familiar. ‘Fresh Blow For British Car Industry…Plant Closure Marks New Low For UK Motor Industry…100 Years of UK Heritage Scrapped By New Owners.’


The following headlines may seem strangely familiar. ‘Fresh Blow For British Car Industry…Plant Closure Marks New Low For UK Motor Industry…100 Years of UK Heritage Scrapped By New Owners.’


It would be surprising if they didn’t ring a bell because such headlines, or numerous variations of them, have been appearing in the national press, radio and TV for the last 20 years.


In this light it’s refreshing to find a dissenting voice that insists that not only are things not that bad for the UK automotive sector, in many respects – and with a few significant reservations – they’re actually quite rosy.


According to this maverick view, improved productivity, a narrowing skills gap and a general sense of business optimism characterise a sector that can point to a string of world class success stories.


So who is the renegade behind this unorthodox analysis? Funnily enough, it’s none other than the UK automotive industry in the form of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which this week released its annual snapshot of the sector compiled from the responses of more than 100 senior executives.


The reasons for the SMMT’s generally upbeat view is based on a few of the headline findings of its poll, which paint a rather different picture from the sample headlines quoted above.


For example, in 2006 the proportion of respondents that believed production must move to low-cost economies in order to remain competitive dipped below half for the first time in the survey’s five year history.


Even so, at 46 per cent it is tempting to adopt the ‘glass half empty’ approach and brand the level alarmingly high. However, the SMMT is right to point out that the trend is downwards, and in such a ferociously competitive global market that is progress in itself.


Similarly, the auto industry seems to believe it is getting its act together when it comes to finding suitably skilled employees, with a big reduction in those reporting problems hiring the right people.


At the most basic level, optimism over general business prospects for the next five years is running at more than 80 per cent.


This is not to say that the UK automotive sector exists in a state of unqualified bliss, and there’s certainly no sense of complacency. Worries about excessive legislation and regulation and growing competition from Asia loom especially large.


And saying that the UK auto sector is in surprisingly good shape is in no way to play down the impact of its recent high-profile setbacks on the employees and suppliers of those affected.


However, next time you see one of those front page headlines proclaiming the end of the British car industry, remember that there’s another side to the story.


We may not be able to claim ultimate ownership of the world’s car marques, but if we can design them, supply their components and build them by the thousands, that’s hardly a definition of failure.


Andrew Lee


Editor


The Engineer & The Engineer Online