A recent key two-hour meeting, between an engineer and a politician who had never previously met, could have enormous implications for the health of the UK’s part-thriving, part-struggling automotive manufacturing and supply industry.
The protagonists — newly appointed business secretary Vince Cable and former Ford worldwide product chief Richard Parry-Jones — are co-chairmen of the Automotive Council, an advisory body of two dozen top industry leaders set up two years ago to clear the lines of communication between government and the motor industry.
Its job is to attract foreign investment, advise on legislation, help target government funding and work to improve the fortunes of an industry that employs well over a million people, pumps £10 billion annually into the UK economy, invests more in R&D than any other and represents a huge part of what is still the world’s sixth largest manufacturing economy.
After a promising start under the leadership of Parry-Jones and Lord Mandelson, the Automotive Council has faced months of election uncertainty. But things took an abrupt upturn several weeks ago when Cable signalled his willingness to succeed Mandelson as council co-chairman. “We have another heavy hitter in the fold, says Parry-Jones. “We want to hear his fresh ideas.”
Parry-Jones, co-chairman of the council, believes the task for the council is huge, but the rewards are greater. “The first task is to get the industry’s fundamentals right, and we won’t win every battle on the way. Our steady aim over the next five years must be to build an industry that can grow sustainably after that. It’s a challenge, but a great goal.”
One early task will be to find a better way to direct existing government funding. “At present there are several competing bodies that do this,” says Parry-Jones, “but it needs organising. We’re not asking for more money, just a better framework.”
The council visualises one entity, tentatively called Testbed UK, responsible for identifying targets, dispensing funds and monitoring results.