Living in east Oxford, the BMW factory at Cowley is a constant presence in my life - indeed, the trains that carry freshly constructed Minis away for export rumble past about 100 yards from my front door.

Mini And there’s no doubt that this week’s laying off of 850 ‘contract’ workers is a blow that’s going to be felt by the wider community.

For all the famous university’s dreaming spires, Oxford has long been as much an industrial town as it has been an academic one.

Cars have been produced in Cowley since 1913, making it – by my reckoning – the site with the longest history of volume car production in the country, through Morris, BMC, Leyland, Rover and now BMW. More than 25,000 people worked at Cowley in the 1970s, when the plant occupied nearly four times the area of the current (and still sizeable) factory.

MuralNow that number is less than 5000.

Today, by coincidence, I met an acquaintance who works at the factory next to the particularly seventies mural that commemorates various of the plant’s most famous products at the Cowley shopping centre.

Despite being on a temporary contract, he had been spared the first round of lay-offs.

Predictably, he reported that morale is somewhere below floorboard level at the moment, with lots of resentment directed at both the plant’s management and the trade union reps who many reckon didn’t do enough to protect their members’ interests.

Princess At the end of our conversation, he nodded towards the mural – and its particularly fine rendition of a 1976 Princess – “will we still be making cars here in five years’ time?” he asked.

Good question.