Swindon’s long and proud manufacturing history started in 1843 when the Great Western Railway Works were opened by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and continued through the second world war with Spitfire aircraft being built at the Supermarine factory. Swindon saw the development of the Mechanic’s Institute, a library for workers set up long before the UK’s first public Library, and the Institute also hosted the GWR Medical Fund which was adopted as the blueprint for the National Health Service by Aneurin Bevan.
The railway works finally shut in 1986, but forward-thinking Councillors in the town had already been working with Honda for a year with a view to opening a factory as soon as possible to offer skilled work to those who had worked ‘inside’ at the Railways works. The Honda plant opened in 1989 and has built over a million cars since then.
Sadly, Honda announced that production will halt and the site will close in 2021 with the loss of 3500 skilled jobs at the plant and up to 10,000 in the wider supply chain.
Whilst the Honda statement was careful to attribute the closure to ‘global issues affecting the car industry’, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the Brexit shambles have played a part in the closure.
Koji Tsuruoka, the Japanese Ambassador, speaking in February 2018, set out the challenges facing the UK Car industry and replied “If there is no profitability of continuing operations in the UK then no company can continue operations” when asked about companies leaving the UK if there wasn’t a satisfactory Brexit deal. He continued “It’s a simple as that. This is all high stakes that all of us need to keep in mind.” He went on to say that manufacturers “expected” free access to the EU market.
At a meeting in September last year, Patrick Keating, a member of Honda’s Public Affairs team spoke at a Swindon Brexit summit in the town organised by Clare Moody MEP with Anneliese Dodds MP and explained the potential impact of Brexit on the factory. He explained that a car is produced every 69 seconds at the plant, and that 20% of the components are imported from within the EU on a just-in-time basis.
He highlighted the importance of the single market and the customs union to future production at the site and warned that a no-deal Brexit would cost the company millions of pounds.
Apparently, the town’s two Conservative MPs have been ‘in close contact’ with Honda through the Brexit negotiations. The MPs are Solicitor General Robert Buckland, a Remainer, and Justin Tomlinson MP, a committed Brexiteer. Justin Tomlinson tweeted this last month:
“Honda are making preparations for any scenario, they remain committed to Swindon. As the Snr Vice President of Europe has reinforced; Swindon is a crucial part of their entire global production network. I have worked with them and they fully support the PMs Brexit deal.”
This followed a statement of “Whilst it is crucial that we make the best of Brexit and ensure the interests of our major economic contributors, it is good to see that local employers are confident about the global opportunities presented to us” following a visit to the plans in 2017.
Shockingly, Justin’s first tweet following the news breaking yesterday was to defend his ideological commitment to Brexit and say “This is based on global trends and not Brexit” rather than mention the massive impact on the workers and the town.
Whilst there are undoubtedly global demand issues in the car industry, most notably with a fall in demand for diesel and increased future demand for electric vehicles, Brexit has played a part in the plans to close the Honda plant in Swindon. No diesel cars are made at the Swindon plant. Like many other companies who have moved production from the UK recently, Honda are loathe to blame Brexit. This is much more from a desire to not alienate those 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit from purchasing their products in the future.
I'm determined to make sure, along with my fellow Labour councillors, that we do all we can to ensure that we get support from the Government to try to persuade Honda to reconsider as it is only a proposal at this stage, and if it does happen, to get funding to soften the blow and find ways to attract new skilled jobs to the town that we will desperately need. It is clear that after years of austerity and a further £20m of cuts for Swindon Council to find this year, we can’t do this work on our own. We will certainly try to match the ingenuity and innovation of our forefathers in the town.
It remains unbelievable that we are less than 50 days from Brexit, and there is no certainly for workers and business about what Brexit will mean for their industry. I really worry about what the closure of Honda will mean for Swindon and how many other towns if their key manufacturing jobs also disappear.