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“Britain’s automotive industry has been bruised and battered over the last five years”

Mike Rutherford thinks a Chinese manufacturer should open a car factory in Britain - preferably one called BYD

Opinion - UK manufacturing

Britain’s automotive industry has just suffered one of its most gruelling ever half-decades. The pandemic, spiralling energy costs, the tricky transition from ICE to EV, Brexit complications and other political shenanigans have left it badly bruised and battered. 

That said, according to up-to-the-minute industry figures that I stumbled across last week, in 2023 the UK still had the 60-plus specialist car manufacturers it was blessed with in 2018. Over the same period, the number of engine makers, research centres and design studios grew. And manufacturing jobs rose from 168,000 to 208,000. 

But that is about as good as it gets. In other crucially important areas, the numbers are down, often to worryingly low levels. Back then we had six car makers classed as mainstream. But now – after Honda and Vauxhall stopped building cars here – there are just four. Premium brand Infiniti closed its Sunderland production line too. 

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And although we should be thankful for small mercies – the new Aston Martin factory in Wales, plus the birth of Gordon Murray Automotive in Guildford are good examples – the truth is that the negatives outweigh the positives.   

The UK built 1.5 million cars in 2018, but only 905,000 last year. During the same period, engine production slumped from 2.7 million to 1.6 million. The number of cars we exported plummeted from 1.2 million to 607,000. Spending on research and development dropped from £3.75billion to £3bn. The number of Brits working in the whole UK automotive sector (not just in manufacturing) fell from 823,000 to 800,000. Turnover dropped too – from £82bn to £78bn.

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By a comfortable margin, Nissan became the UK’s largest, most productive car manufacturer, ahead of home-grown Jaguar Land Rover, MINI/BMW and Toyota (including Suzuki). But each of these firms produced fewer cars in Britain in 2023 than in 2018, with JLR suffering the most, as production of Jaguars and Land Rovers fell by 47 per cent.

Astonishingly, unlikely countries such as the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Slovakia, Turkey and Iran have overtaken us in the automotive manufacturing league table. Although it’s not all doom and gloom, it is fair to say that if the last five years are anything to go by (and they are), the UK’s car-manufacturing industry is declining. 

There are obvious problems in need of solutions – so here’s something to begin with. First, if Brexit did happen, Britain should be free to decide what state subsidies it offers. More proper, well paid jobs for residents will be created, and they’ll pay billions in income tax, National Insurance and other taxes that’ll help keep the nation afloat.

The new Business Secretary takes office in a month and one of his/her first tasks must be to convince the Chinese that they need at least one car plant in the UK. It’s not enough that Japan-owned Nissan and India-owned JLR are battling to be No.1 Car Producer in Britain. An additional player is needed – preferably the one called BYD.  

Do you agree with Mike? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section...

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Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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