The news that Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant has managed to get the contract to build the 2015 Astra was an even bigger achievement than it first appeared. Many of the finance world’s biggest brains had already written it off in its face-off with Opel plants in Germany. The received wisdom is that, in continental Europe, car factories are never closed because the local governments will never allow it.
And yet a pretty radical labour agreement, which will see three-shift working in order to get the annual capacity up to 170,000 cars per year, was given the green light by a near-unanimous vote by the staff. And Ellesmere is safe until 2020.
Just across the Mersey, only three miles or so if you are a crow, is Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant. This ex-Ford plant won global awards for quality when it was building the Jaguar X-Type and was rewarded with production of the Freelander 2 and the insanely popular Range Rover Evoque.
Just down the road from Halewood were British Leyland’s two giant Speke plants. The first one was originally built by Triumph on Merseyside after ‘encouragement’ from then-government. Halewood and Ellesmere were similarly government inspired creations. In the 1970s, all three factories were bywords for poor quality and union militancy.
If you have 10 minutes, I would highly recommend watching this Nationwide report, hosted on the BBC website, on the fate of Speke which gives an eye-opening insight into the state of 1970s industry.
Although Speke died, the report shows the extraordinary advances made by the Halewood and Ellesmere Port. Who could have imagined two of those three Merseyside plants surviving into the 21st century by being world-class?
However, I think there’s another reason that GM and JLR are investing in Merseyside. Although it hasn’t got much coverage, the plans to build a new, six-lane, bridge over the Mersey have been crucial. The Mersey Gateway toll bridge, due in 2016, will virtually link Ellesmere Port and Halewood.
It might also explain why JLR is expanding its supply chain into facilities bang next door to Ellesmere Port. With the new bridge in place, what looks like the bizarre decision to build facilities on the opposite side of the river, makes more sense. And has this expansion of the local supply and logistics chain by JLR actually helped Ellesmere Port to survive?
Hats off, then, to the then-Transport Minister Phillip Hammond for agreeing, last October, to release £470m towards building the bridge. I wonder whether, with the rescue of the Ellesmere Port plant, we have just witnessed the UK managing to do something that has been common in Europe for decades: neatly lining up major infrastructure investment and industrial co-operation for the long-term health of manufacturing.