The car industry has had enough of Brexit bickering – it must have clarity

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence on Friday, some of the UK’s biggest automotive manufacturers have made it clear to Theresa May that they are tired of their concerns being ignored.

The UK’s car industry is beyond exasperated with the infighting, lack of clarity and strategy dominating the Brexit negotiations — and it is fed up with not being listened to.

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech in Florence on Friday, some of the UK’s biggest automotive manufacturers have made it clear to Theresa May, Liam Fox and David Davis that they are tired of the situation and tired of being ignored.

Warnings have come thick and fast in recent weeks, with Jaguar Landrover’s CEO Ralf Speth reportedly having a heated argument with the Prime Minister at one of her charm offensive weekend dinners.

One senior executive at Jaguar Land Rover told Sky News this week that its recent investment in a new facility in Slovakia has “become a hedge” against a post-Brexit deterioration in its trading conditions “by default”.

The investment in the Slovakia site is part of a long-term agreed plan to manage expansion of its car production across the globe.

This was followed by Didier Leroy, the executive vice president of Toyota, who told to the British government via an interview with Reuters that they could no longer sit back and wait for the Government to sort out the Brexit mess.

Having been given assurances that a good deal would be reached Toyota confirmed investment in its plant in Burnaston, Derby. Now, Leroy says – it is not so sure.

Harald Kruger, the CEO of BMW in an interview with the Sunday Times fired a warning shot across the bows of the government suggesting that the planned investment at their Cowley and Swindon plants for the new electric Mini may be in question.

Unite conveners were assured that that the new model would still come to the UK, but were told that the German parent company were concerned at the direction of travel of the Government and putting markers down.

And the latest to wade in was Andrew Palmer CEO of Aston Martin, a company that needs to know what the future will hold given its export market and its prestige product.

Palmer gave the government six months to get some clarity and wanted to know what would happen with access to skills following Brexit.

Unite’s highly skilled membership in the UK automotive sector has been asking the same questions – this is now an industry demanding answers.

While the government ducks and dives on the question of access to the single market, membership of a customs union, access to skills and investment, transitional arrangements and on-going EU employment protection, concerns are growing.

Unite members who helped turn the industry into what Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has called ‘the jewel in the crown of UK manufacturing’ are expressing increasing worries about the damage being done to the industry by a government who do not seem to be in listening mode.

One of Unite’s senior union conveners told me recently: “We are sleep walking into an economic catastrophe – I can’t sit back and watch the Tories throw away good jobs and our kids future’s away.”

Equally the supply chain for the auto sector is concerned about crashing out of a customs union with nothing to replace it.

Having worked hard to re-shore components back to the UK (now around 40%) with components sometimes crossing the channel up to five times, Unite and the industry won’t see this progress being thrown away by indecision and incompetence.

And what of investment? Almost each week auto companies across the globe are announcing research and plans to introduce – initially as an option – electric vehicles, but according to Professor Davis Bailey of Aston Business School investment in the auto sector is ‘stalling’.

In 2016 £1.65 billion was invested, so far this year (for the first six months) investment stands at £300,000 million (which includes the year’s Toyota investment).

Unite is campaigning to ensure that the next generation of electric models, along with the infrastructure such as battery technology –recycling, charging and replacement of batteries – comes to the UK.

Automotive companies looking to invest in the technology are right to be concerned while the current government Brexit policy (or lack of it) drives towards the edge of a cliff.

Unite has made our Brexit priorities on the single market, a customs union, skills, investment and employment protection very clear – not just for our auto industry but for all UK manufacturing – the industries workforce and the manufacturers must be listened too.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary at Unite. He tweets here.

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