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[NEWS] As the dust settles: What will become of Honda's Swindon factory?

As the dust settles: What will become of Honda's Swindon factory?

10 LUC Honda Factory Closure John Evans 2021 0001
What happens to a town and its people when a major employer leaves it? Swindon, sadly, will find out

Honda will close its Swindon factory this week. What will become of the thousands of people who work there and in its supply chain?

What happens to a town and its people when a major employer leaves it? Many have faced this question and now, with the closure of Honda’s car factory on Friday this week, it’s Swindon’s turn.

Located to the south-east of the Wiltshire town, built on the old South Marston airfield, it opened in 1985. It was a major moment in Swindon’s history. At the time, I lived and worked 10 miles away, in Cirencester. Some of my friends got jobs there and were cock-a-hoop at the prospect of securing wellpaid jobs and getting on a career ladder. Assuming they stayed, some of them will be approaching retirement age now. Sadly, for younger employees just starting out, the plant’s closure is a body blow. Few firms in Swindon offer working conditions, career progression or salaries as good as Honda’s.

Beyond the security fences of the factory are the people and businesses who support it. Major component suppliers to small roadside cafes: they will all be affected by the closure. What will their future be? I went to Swindon to find out.

It’s raining when I drop by the Supermarine Sports and Social Club, half a mile from the Honda factory. Out of the blue, a van turns up. It’s the local pest controller – and he’s not happy. “There’s going to be a surge of tradespeople when the Honda plant closes, all competing with the existing ones,” he tells me. “Honda has organised training in various trades, including electrical and plumbing. Workers are going to leave the plant after a couple of weeks thinking they know the job. Already I’ve had people telling me that they’ve found a bloke who worked at Honda who can get rid of their rat problem for less than I charge.”

An anxious rat-catcher was the last person who I expected to hear from, but he has got me thinking that while the factory closure is a threat to some people in Swindon, it’s an opportunity for others. My theory is confirmed a few minutes later when, a short drive from the club on the South Marston industrial estate, I spy a recruitment agency. Opex Personnel opened only 18 months ago, but its timing couldn’t have been better.

“There are more jobs than people to do them, and the problem is becoming acute,” says Ashlea, the agency’s regional manager. She reveals that, along with two other local agencies, Opex gave a recruitment presentation to 3400 staff at the Honda plant in February and found that most were well trained and qualified in their roles. “The calibre of people leaving Honda is phenomenal, so its closure will benefit other businesses,” she continues. “Swindon’s strength is industrial logistics, and the future for this sector is rosy. HGV and forklift drivers are all needed, and many people leaving Honda have these skills. They will need to be realistic regarding salaries, though. Not every company pays as well as Honda.”

More jobs than people? It sounds too good to be true, although forklift driving doesn’t seem to promise much in the way of career development and a high salary… Just down from the local Mercedes-Benz Trucks dealer (I bet they’re busy) is TJ’s Cafe. Linda – or Mum, as the staff call her – says that anyone leaving Honda with a driving licence could easily pick up a job with Amazon.

The online retail giant has just announced that it’s renting a new 50,000sq ft warehouse a mile or so away on Symmetry Park, just off the A420 to Oxford, promising 1300 jobs. The developer of the site is Panattoni, the same company that recently announced it had bought the 370-acre Honda factory. It has pledged to invest £700 million in regenerating the site to support local businesses.

The move has been welcomed by councillors, who say it will bring lots of very skilled jobs and a good mix of companies to Swindon, but Linda isn’t convinced: “It will just be more warehousing. They’re going to need more drivers, that’s for sure.”

Coincidentally, parked in their vans outside are two Amazon drivers on a rest break. One of them, Ray, worked for TDG – a company once owned by Honda that delivered parts to the Swindon production line – for six years in the 1980s and 1990s until being made redundant.

“I was a forklift driver and just took the payout,” he tells me. “I did loads of jobs after that, and in this last lockdown I became a self-employed van driver for Amazon. I’m worried about the wave of unskilled labour coming onto the market and what kind of jobs Panattoni is going to bring. Do we need more warehousing?”

A theme is emerging here. Does the local parish council chairman have better news? I’d contacted Colin McEwen the day before, and we’d arranged to meet near his home in South Marston village.

“The biggest employer in the town is actually Nationwide, so Honda’s closing will just be a ripple,” he says. “It’s the opportunity the closure represents that’s important. For a long time, Swindon’s planners have talked about building a high-tech science park on this side of Swindon, linked to Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford and Bristol. It could be concentrated on the old Honda site and push out to Oxford and Newbury, but my concern is that Panattoni might develop more warehousing offering low-skilled and low-paid jobs.”

My visit to Highworth, a town four miles away and the home of TS Tech, a maker of car seats that it supplies to Honda, is equally discouraging – but for another reason. The company’s buildings dominate the Blackworth Industrial Estate, and its workers’ Honda Civics line the roads. Trying to find the reception building, I catch the attention of an employee through the fencing. “We’re being made redundant in July,” he tells me. “Not long ago, we were making 400 seats a day, but when Honda announced it was closing, we knew we would be next. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.”

At reception, where wall plaques celebrate the manufacture of seats for the Civic and even third-row items for the Volkswagen Touran, a voice on the internal phone speaking from HR confirms the man’s claim, but the firm won’t grant an interview.

“Many Honda workers will find new jobs,” his friend tells me, “but the closure has affected some people very badly. It’s tough out there and, for some people, things are about to get worse.”


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