Problems mount for UK automotive manufacturers in face of increased competitive pressures

The decision by Vauxhall to cease car production at its Luton plant, announced in December 2000, is the latest blow to hit the UK automotive industry in 2000. Europe-wide overcapacity is exacerbated for UK-based manufacturers by the UK remaining outside the euro-zone. This feature summarises the main developments in the UK automotive sector in the six months since the break-up of the Rover Group by BMW.

The announcement on 12 December 2000 by General Motors, the USA-based parent company of Vauxhall Motors, that it is to shut its Luton plant dealt another blow to an already beleaguered UK car industry. BMW's shock break-up of the troubled Rover Group started the ball rolling in March (UK0004164F). General Motors - like Ford, which announced the ending of vehicle production at Dagenham in May (UK0005174F) - blames overcapacity within the European market and increased pressure on new car prices as the reasons for its decision to withdraw from Luton with the loss of 2,200 jobs. More generally, automotive manufacturers have continued to highlight the adverse impact on the competitiveness of their UK operations of the UK remaining outside the group of EU Member States that have introduced the euro single currency (the "euro-zone"). Honda recently announced that it would not be introducing a new small car at its plant in Swindon, and Nissan's plant in Sunderland faces an uncertain future as it awaits the decision on whether the new Micra will be built there.

This feature summarises the main developments in the UK automotive sector since the break-up of Rover.

Vauxhall to cease Vectra production at Luton

The closure of Luton forms a part of a wider restructuring programme announced by General Motors (GM) which will involves 10,000 job losses in North America and Europe over the next 18 months. In reference to the deal struck with GM only a matter of months ago, confirming that the replacement model for the Vectra model would be built at Luton, the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) general secretary, Bill Morris, said that Vauxhall had shown a "cynical disregard" for the promises it had made to workers. While UK union leaders were quick to attribute the main cause of Vauxhall's decision to permissive UK labour laws, it was confirmed that Opel's plants in Europe would also share the burden of the job losses announced by GM, including 1,000 jobs at Bochum, Germany. UK unions renewed calls for the UK government to drop its opposition to the proposed EU Directive on national information and consultation rules (EU9812135F), currently under discussion in the Council of Ministers (EU0012285F).

Car production will end at Luton in early 2002. The rest of Luton's 3,500 employees will be kept on to produce the Frontera four-wheel drive vehicle and vans in a joint venture with Renault. Nick Reilly, the chair of Vauxhall, stressed that the decision had little to do with sterling's strength against the euro, the UK's failure to join the single European currency or poor factory or worker productivity. Rick Wagoner, GM chief executive, said: "Basically we found ourselves facing too much capacity in Europe and, given the timing of models changes, the Luton plant was the one we felt was most logical to close." The measures announced will take 400,000 cars out of GM's European capacity by 2004 with Luton accounting for 100,000 vehicles a year. There are now question marks over the long-term future of Vauxhall's operations in the UK, including its plant at Ellesmere Port, and the impact of GM's partnership with Fiat, which could affect engine production in the UK.

UK automotive manufacturing competitiveness under pressure

The Rover crisis in March 2000 served to highlight the ongoing debate about if and when the UK will join the euro (UK9905102F and UK9909126F). According to BMW, the appreciation of sterling removed DEM 1 billion from its balance sheet in 1999. However, BMW was not alone in highlighting the adverse effects of currency movements on the UK's competitive position during 2000. The position of Japanese car producers in the UK, which export most of their production to continental Europe, is also causing concern.

New investment in Nissan's renowned plant in Sunderland is under threat. In April, it was announced that Sunderland, which is judged to be the most productive car plant in Europe, aims to cut costs by 30% by the end of 2002 in order to offset adverse exchange rates. Soon after the Rover crisis, Nissan warned that currency issues could jeopardise a proposed GBP 150 million expansion of the site to build the new Micra model. In response, the UK government proposed a package of aid amounting to GBP 40 million.

Fresh concerns were raised in December 2000 by the confirmation that the European Commission will not rule on the proposed state aid package for the plant until after Nissan's crucial executive meeting in January 2001. At this meeting, the decision will be made on whether to continue production of the Micra in Sunderland or to transfer production to Renault's plant at Flins. The Commission has warned that: "without the project, capacity utilisation in Sunderland would be reduced by 220,000 units with the resultant loss of some 1,300 jobs at the plant and significant job losses among local suppliers." Nissan employs 5,000 people at the plant and a further 8,000 indirect jobs in the region depend on the site.

In March, less than a week after announcing 1,000 new jobs at its Swindon plant due to a GBP 450 million investment in a second production plant, Honda announced that it was cutting vehicle production at its UK plant in 2000 by more than 50%. Although Honda confirmed than none of its 3,100 workforce would be laid off, it blamed slowing demand in Europe for UK-built models, the strength of sterling and weak sales in the UK due to uncertainty over new car prices. Honda announced in June that it is to reduce the UK content of its cars from an average of 70% to 50% or lower over the next two years. By November, Yoshide Munekuni, the chair of Honda, said that the company would "definitely not" build a car plant in the UK if it were looking for a European manufacturing location today. Honda confirmed that it had suspended plans to build a new small car at its Swindon plant, which was due for introduction in 2002.

Toyota too has voiced strong concerns over the competitive situation in the UK. Tadaaki Jagawa, its executive vice-president of procurement, issued a stern warning that the continued strength of sterling against the euro could prompt Toyota to reconsider its investments in the UK. He said: "The UK government has said it may join the euro in five years, but we won't be around five years from now." In the meantime Toyota will ask some suppliers to switch contracts from sterling to euros to help minimise its currency exposure.

In February, prior to Ford's announcement on the future of Dagenham, Nick Scheele, the European chair of the US-based Ford, warned that Britain had become a prime target for Ford's European restructuring activities due to sterling's rise against the euro. He called for a statement that it would enter the single currency from the government but warned that "no manufacturer would be helped if Britain went in at a rate of DEM 3.20 to the pound. The right level is DEM 2.55-DEM 2.60." Following quickly on from the GM announcement about Luton, Peugeot, the French carmaker, has said that its EUR 150 million investment in a new paint facility at its plant in Coventry could be under threat. Without this investment, due in 2003, the future of the plant is uncertain. Jean-Martin Folz, the PSA Peugeot Citroën chief executive, said: "Before taking this decision we will have to review the advantages of doing this investment in the UK."

Six months on from the break-up of Rover Group

On 9 May 2000, the immediate future of the Longbridge car plant was secured when the Phoenix consortium bought Rover Group from the German-owned BMW for GBP 10 (UK0005174F). Six months after the break-up of the Rover Group by BMW, completed at the beginning of July 2000, its consequences for employment and industrial relations can begin to be assessed.

Employment security

During the break-up of Rover Group, intense media attention was focused upon the future of the huge Longbridge assembly complex, its 9,000 employees and the consequences for the West Midlands supply base. Upon taking over Longbridge, John Towers, who led the Phoenix consortium bid, confirmed that around 1,000 redundancies would be required, far fewer than initially feared. Six months after the break-up of BMW's UK operations, the three successor companies have initiated major restructuring programmes, involving voluntary redundancies totalling up to 2,500 employees in all.

Under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, the "no compulsory redundancy" provisions of the Rover Tomorrow/New Deal agreement (UK9810153F) are protected for all hourly-paid employees transferred out of Rover Group. However, while BMW (UK) Manufacturing and Land Rover continue to recognise the original terms of the agreement, the position within the renamed MG Rover is less clear.

To enable the sale to Phoenix to go through, Rover's unions and management staff had to waive their legal claims over irregularities in the process of consultation during the break-up of the company. As part of this deal, MG Rover and BMW agreed to match the terms paid by BMW in 1999 to those taking voluntary redundancy for the following 12 months. However, the management view is that the waiver agreement "tacitly recognises" that a point may come when compulsory redundancy may be the only option left for MG Rover, after all other avenues have been exhausted. Tony Woodley, the chief automotive industry negotiator for the TGWU, felt that it would be "touch and go" whether all the redundancies required by MG Rover could be achieved through voluntary means, and that if a restricted number of compulsory job losses were to occur, this - whilst regrettable - would bear no comparison to predicted job losses if the rival Alchemy bid had succeeded (UK0004164F).

Both trade unions and management have adopted a pragmatic approach towards the redundancies required by MG Rover. Longbridge union representatives continue to work on the assumption that the company will honour, in principle, all previous agreements with the unions. Equally, MG Rover management has affirmed its desire to maintain, where possible, the conditions for flexibility incorporated into the Rover Tomorrow/New Deal employment security agreement and to balance the Longbridge workforce through voluntary means, although "the tenets of the New Deal do not apply in their entirety". Apart from 10 compulsory redundancies, which occurred in July as a consequence of the reallocation of staff between BMW, Land Rover and Rover, MG Rover is close to securing the 1,000 voluntary redundancies required.

Other developments at MG Rover

Controversy over the future of MG Rover continues to preoccupy the British press. In October 2000, two non-executive board members, who were members of the Phoenix consortium, resigned amid intense press speculation that a boardroom split over MG Rover's business strategy had occurred, although this was denied by both board members. On top of this, rumours of a tie-up between MG Rover and the Malaysia n car producer Proton in a "joint platform" venture emerged in September, fuelling further speculation that MG Rover might be up for sale. Such speculation continues to destabilise customer confidence in the UK and ignores the progress made by the company since achieving independence.

In June, MG Rover was the first car manufacturer to make price reductions of 10% or more right across the Rover range, in anticipation of a Department of Trade and Industry directive on car pricing in the UK. The summer saw the successful transfer of the Rover 75 production line to Longbridge, a civil engineering project unique in the UK car industry in terms of its scale and the time in which the transfer was undertaken. After 41 years of production, the last Mini rolled off the production line at Longbridge on 4 October, coinciding with the production of the first Rover 75s to be built at Longbridge, just three months after production ceased at Cowley. Plans to launch the Rover 75 estate, three MG derivatives of the 75, 45 and 25 models and an MG sports car in 2001 have been announced, whilst details of an employee share-ownership scheme were revealed in November. Initially each employee will be allocated 800 shares. At current values, these shares could be worth between GBP 28,000 and GBP 30,000. However, employees can cash their shares in only if the company is sold, partially sold or floated on the stock exchange.

Restructuring at Land Rover

Whilst the UK press continues to focus upon the future of MG Rover, Land Rover, now owned by Ford, has initiated an equally significant restructuring programme. Amid reports that Ford does not expect Land Rover to return to profit before 2002, Wolfgang Reitzle, the chair of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, said that Ford has inherited a business from BMW which is handicapped by "an absolutely uncompetitive cost position". He highlighted poor productivity at the Solihull plant and the value of sterling as areas to be addressed. In October 2000, Land Rover announced that more than 3,000 production workers, 23% of the total workforce, are to receive intensive training at Ford plants throughout Europe in an effort to address Land Rover's productivity and quality problems.

All 2,000 workers on the Defender and Discovery lines will be transferred temporarily to Ford plants for 15-day placements. Martin Burela, Land Rover's new manufacturing director, said: "We need to completely transform the way that we build the Discovery and the Defender. Nothing like this has been attempted in the history of the company." On top of this, a further 1,000 employees from the Range Rover lines will attend a four-week training programme on "premium-sector" production techniques in preparation for the introduction of the new Range Rover in 2001. Ford has announced an investment programme of around GBP 150 million to modernise facilities at Solihull. However, Land Rover is to seek 600 voluntary redundancies before the end of 2000.

Disruption to production at BMW's Cowley plant

By the time the new Mini goes into production at Cowley in 2001, BMW (UK) Manufacturing will have experienced over nine months of disruption to production. Under the terms of Rover's 1998 flexibility agreement (UK9812168N), up to 200 hours a year can be deployed flexibly and Cowley's 1,200 production employees will work extra hours during the Mini's "volume production ramp-up" phase. Whilst BMW has said that there will be no compulsory redundancies at the plant, a campaign to attract voluntary redundancies totalling 20% of the workforce was launched soon after BMW announced the sale of Rover and around 600 employees had come forward by mid-August 2000. Like Ford, during this period of disruption BMW has sent up to 300 employees to its other plants to receive training. However, the long-term future of Cowley remains in doubt after Norbert Reithofer, who is responsible for BMW's manufacturing operations worldwide, admitted that there was a "very high pressure on cost" for the Mini due to currency pressures.

Commentary

The past 12 months have been tumultuous for automotive manufacturing within the UK. Whilst the break-up of Rover Group can be viewed as an exceptional occurrence, the escalation in the pressure felt by manufacturers and suppliers alike as a consequence of the weak euro and overcapacity in Europe (estimated to represent 20% of total production) is cause for continuing concern. Vehicle production in the UK during 1999 reached 1.78 million units – figures on a par with the record levels reached in the early 1970s – but these figures have not been translated into profits. The restructuring of Rover Group will have accounted for up to 2,500 voluntary redundancies in its successor companies by the end of 2000, whilst the recent announcements by Ford and Vauxhall will add a further 5,450 direct job losses by early 2002.

The only bright points on an otherwise bleak horizon are: Jaguar's transformation of Ford's plant at Halewood to produce its new small executive saloon; Ford's consolatory GBP 500 million investment in turning Dagenham into a centre of excellence for engine production; and the opening of BMW's new engine factory at Hams Hall in 2001. Industry observers cautiously await the decision on Nissan's future in early 2001. However, further job losses in the sector appear to be inevitable in the 2001. (Joy Batchelor, Operations Management Group, Warwick Business School)

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