For an analysis of the current position of the UK’s car industry, the range of pressures and issues it faces and its likely shape after any form of Brexit from a range of perspectives, turn to Keeping the Wheels on the Road, the third in the Bite-Sized Brexit books, edited by Professor David Bailey, the foremost commentator on the UK auto industry, Professor Alex De Ruyter, at the Centre for Brexit Studies, Birmingham City University, Neil Fowler and John Mair.
In a major contribution to the Brexit debate, seasoned industry experts, observers, commentators and representatives of the industry’s unions, provide arguments for cautious optimism through to rather shocked pessimism.
From Chapter 5: Just-in-time listening required
Co-authored by Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Motor Group and David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at the Aston Business School.
They have no doubt that the future of automotive does not lie with internal combustion engines – whether diesel or petrol – and stress the vital importance of effective management of the transition
Their counter-intuitive assertion that decimating the market for new diesel engines has brought with it damaging if unintended consequences to the protection of the planet – contributing to the first aggregate rise in the greenhouse gases produced by new cars in more than a decade – sent the writer to search for an explanation online:
- Part of the problem: there has been a big jump in sales of petrol-driven 4x4s which are heavier and consume more fuel. SUVs now account for about one in five new cars sold.
- There has been a sharp drop in the sales of new diesels, which are, generally speaking, more fuel-efficient than the petrol models now being sold and produce less CO2 – one of the main gases associated with climate change.
Ministerial mixed messages over diesel has undermined the capacity of manufacturers to manage that transition.
The industrial impact of failing to manage the transition threatens to be severe too, with UK engine plants of manufacturers like BMW, Ford and JLR all currently heavily dependent on diesel production.
Messages from ministers have been mixed: recent reductions in plug-in car grants standing in stark contrast to the incentives offered to motorists to buy zero-emission vehicles in counties like Norway. But efforts are now being made by the Government to mandate the expansion of the UK’s vehicle charging infrastructure which should include on-street charging and monitoring of the performance of public charging points. The authors emphasise:
“A successful transition requires more clarity from the Government in support of both the production and take up of the electric and other alternatively powered vehicles that will be the future of the sector.”
The fact that a number of major manufacturers have yet to confirm plans to build in the UK the next generations of models sends out serious warnings signals that would be foolish in the extreme to ignore.
Ministers could show they are listening:
- by reducing Brexit uncertainty through ruling out no deal,
- ending mixed messages over modern diesel
- and showing much more dynamism in supporting the transition to a connected, autonomous and alternatively powered automotive future,
Burden & Bailey insist that the innovative capacity and diversity that has made the UK automotive sector the success story it has become over the past decade remain in place and David Bailey, in his second chapter, asks for an upgrading in how the UK develops its future manufacturing plans:
“There is a strong case for UK industrial strategy to be afforded an institutional status similar to both UK monetary and fiscal policies. At the very least, it should be the subject of regular strategic long-term reviews. By giving it that sort of priority, the new government would send out the kind of powerful message that British industry and foreign investors need to hear given recent uncertainty.”