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Best of British: Toyota marks 50 years in the UK

As Toyota marks a half century in the UK, we visit the plant that transformed South Derbyshire 25 years ago

Twenty five years ago, the rural calm of two small Derbyshire villages was shattered by news that Toyota was to build its biggest factory in Europe on their doorstep.

One of the residents, John Lemmon, still vividly recalls the first meeting held in the Burnaston Village Hall when a huge number of people turned up to protest that it was going to have to be transferred to the local church.

He tells us: “Everyone was opposed to the Toyota factory. We were all apprehensive about having a huge car plant on our doorstep. For a small rural community, it was the worst scenario possible.”

John, a local councillor at the time, was one of the first people elected on to a Community Liaison Committee set up by Toyota to address the fears of local residents. And he is now happy to concede that Toyota has not only been a perfect neighbour, but has made a significant contribution to a host of local community projects, from schools and churches to cub and scout troops and the local leisure centre. 

“From individual cases of Toyota double glazing the home of a local resident who was being affected by dust from the original building site, to improving the roads, power and water supplies to the area, it’s gone way beyond what you would expect,” John explains.

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He also recognises the major contribution Toyota has made to employment, telling us: “South Derbyshire was a community dominated by a mining industry that was dying. The area was becoming a very depressing place, but Toyota has turned it into a thriving area where unemployment is lower than the national average.”

Today, the Burnaston factory is one of the top plants in the brand’s global empire, plus it’s a vital cog in the local Derbyshire economy, employing 3,000 workers.

Toyota is celebrating 50 years in the UK this year and over three million sales, alongside 25 years at Burnaston, where it has now built nearly 3.8 million cars.

The manufacturer has invested over £2.1billion in its UK operation and created over 3,500 jobs – with 500 at its engine plant on Deeside, Clwyd, plus thousands more at 200 British companies in the UK component industry.

One of the workers who symbolises what Toyota has meant to the area is Wayne Smith. He lives only five minutes away from the factory and joined as a maintenance team member 23 years ago.

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Wayne has no doubt that Toyota has drastically changed his life as he has risen through the ranks and is now a senior engineer at the plant. “At Toyota I saw the chance of a better future for me and my family,” he says. “I have been offered a constant challenge to improve myself and I’ve achieved much more than I thought.”

That includes a degree in manufacturing engineering at the age of 50 after Toyota paid for him to go to university. “I really relished that challenge,” adds Wayne. “I was studying at the same time as my son, and it was a big personal achievement when I got my degree.”

In 2015, a vibrant Burnaston builds three of Toyota’s most important models – the Auris hatchback and a hybrid version, alongside the Avensis family car – after the latest £100million of new investment.

The plant’s deputy managing director, Tony Walker, is another Brit who has worked his way to a senior position at Burnaston, and he’s proud of how the site is now competitive with Toyota factories around the world.

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He reveals that this year, during the launch of the new Auris and Avensis models, the plant recorded zero defects in a Toyota quality audit, but quickly adds: “We can’t afford to rest on our laurels.”

Walker believes the plant’s success is down to its constant investment in improving its workforce’s skills, telling us: “We have some of the world’s most highly skilled car workers, and we use their talents to the maximum.”

Walker, a veteran of the car business who experienced the strike-ridden days of the old British industry in his early years, is proud of the fact that Burnaston has never had a strike since it was opened 25 years ago. “We work together to resolve issues and our workers’ ability to solve problems is fundamental because we are measured against the best in the world at Toyota,” he adds.

Walker says that more investment will be made in the next few years when Toyota brings in new, leaner production systems, and that more money will help guarantee a long-term future for the Burnaston site.

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A final reminder of just how committed Toyota is to the local community is a scheme it has launched to help local homeless and jobless youngsters get back on their feet. The company has linked up with youth charity the YMCA’s branch in nearby Derby to develop an 18-week work experienceprogramme with the aim of getting them a job.

Mitch Geere, 22, explains that Toyota and the YMCA have given him “a new opportunity” and the real hope of a job at the end of the course. “The course at Toyota is helping build up my confidence and making me more determined to get a job,” he adds.

“I’d lost my job, broken up with my girlfriend and had no family in the area. Everything had gone pear-shaped and I could have ended up on the streets. But now I feel as if I have a future.”

So while Toyota’s arrival in Derbyshire may have been viewed as a blot on the landscape 25 years ago, there is little doubt today that it’s seen as a shining beacon and an integral part of the local community.

Get all the latest Toyota news and reviews here.

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