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[NEWS] How the UK can attract more car manufacturers post-Brexit

How the UK can attract more car manufacturers post-Brexit

75 years at Crewe   3   current production
Current Bentley production line

Bentley boss Adrian Hallmark fears diversity of UK manufacturing could hinder building domestic supplier base

Attracting another car manufacturer to the UK is going to be critical if we’re going to persuade morer suppliers to “reshore” and bring more manufacturing to the UK, according to Bentley head Adrian Hallmark.

“The UK isn't anywhere near competitive enough to be part of the global supply base,” Hallmark said bluntly in a conversation with Autocar.

His argument is that the landscape of Britain’s car manufacturers - from the likes of Bentley at the top, Jaguar Land Rover in the middle and Nissan and Toyota representing the mass market - is too diverse to present a sound enough business case to a supplier deciding whether to locate in the UK rather than continental Europe.

“There's not a critical mass of a million vehicles being produced per year of the same type with the same needs from a supplier point of view,” Hallmark said.

Bringing in another manufacturer is therefore needed.

The need to build a healthy and diverse local supplier base has become increasingly important as car makers look to repair globally damaged supply chains with more reliable sources closer to home.

The Covid pandemic, subsequent semiconductor shortage, the scramble to obtain raw materials for batteries and the general fragility of the current supply model has all forced car makers to reassess their purchasing and ask how it can become more secure, reliable and – perhaps most importantly – transparent.

“Car makers in recent years have focused more and more on fewer and fewer tier-one [ie primary] suppliers,” said David Bailey, professor of business economics at the Birmingham Business School.

“The tier-ones built very long supply chains that cross borders many times, but the combination of the pandemic, Brexit, political issues, war [in Ukraine] etc has had a big impact on that. It bit the OEMs on the bum.”

In the UK’s car-making heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the suppliers and the suppliers to suppliers were pretty much all located close to the car factories. Car makers' CEOs would drive past much of the supply chain on their way to work in the morning.

That shifted as car makers looked for economies of scale and took advantage of concentrated areas of expertise abroad to bring down prices. The few suppliers that remained close to the factory were those tier-one suppliers making the really bulky items like seats or dashboards.

That strategy is now shifting again. “We're going through a period of deglobalisation,” Bailey said.

From the beginning, the thrill of lowering unit costs by sourcing from the other side of the world was soured by compromises. Quality often suffered and the distance meant companies couldn’t react quickly if they needed to double an order for whatever reason.

And while the cost out of the factory gate might be cheaper, shipping certainly isn’t. “Container costs have multiplied by about 10 times since Covid,” said Bailey.

The value of UK-sourced parts in cars built here stood at 44% of the total value, UK car-industry body the SMMT concluded in 2017, the last time it checked.

But that figure doesn’t account for parts within parts, and it’s more like a quarter if you do that, the SMMT privately admits.

We could have continued but for one hurdle: Brexit. Our membership of the single market ended at the start of 2021, with the implementation of a trade agreement that included so-called rules of origin.

These call for a forensic study into the source of every part and stipulate exactly what percentage must come from either the UK or EU if exporting either way. Right now, that value is too low, especially for electric cars, so we’ve no choice but to source more locally.

“The rules-of-origin requirement in the free-trade agreement meant civil servants had to do an audit of supply chains that had to be localised,” said Jon Regnart, automotive trend strategist at the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, the government-funded organisation tasked with help UK automotive companies migrate to zero-emissions technologies.

The car industry had been hurt badly by Brexit from the crippling pause in investment between 2016 and 2020 to customs barriers that gummed up supply chains. But the rules-of-origin agreement could be a legitimate Brexit benefit if we use it right.

The has to increase the value of EU/UK-sourced parts to 55% in its cars by 2027, because tariffs will be imposed if it doesn't. The drawback is that the UK can also source from the EU to avoid those tariffs, meaning the race is on to persuade car makers to source in the UK rather than the EU.

Britain is already working to build a battery manufacturing industry, including refining raw materials. But there’s more to be done.

“If we’re not on the train to develop the EV supply chain now, the opportunity will slip through our fingers and wreak havoc on our industry,” said Ian Constance, CEO of the APC, at the Electrified conference hosted by the SMMT in March.

The task is massive. For one thing, we’re building far fewer cars. In 2016, the UK built 1.7 million cars. Last year, it built just 850,575. Fewer cars built means less business for suppliers thinking about building new plants here. That’s mostly why Bentley’s Hallmark says we need to be encouraging a new brand to build cars here, as well as boosting volume numbers from those already here.

“It’s up to the government to attract those new investors and to grow the core manufacturing base, and then the supply base follows," he said. "It's unlikely to be effective if you do it the other way around."

That's easier said than done. “I can’t see us attracting a new OEM unless it’s someone leftfield, whether Rivian or a Chinese player,” said Bailey.

“We've got to build up an EV supply chain if we’re going to anchor car production in the future,” he said, taking the opposite side to Hallmark.

In the business of wooing suppliers, neither the chicken nor the egg will be easily persuaded to come first.

The opposite of reshoring

GKN’s factory in Erdington (Birmingham) will close this year in a reverse of what the UK is hoping to achieve with reshoring. The historical factory is claimed to be the birthplace of the constant velocity (CV) joint but has gradually shrunk over the years as it lost UK customers for its CV sideshafts, leaving just Jaguar Land Rover.

Once it shuts, the UK’s largest homegrown automotive supplier will cease to have an significant automotive plant in the UK and will instead supply CV sideshafts to the UK from Poland.

This is a trend noted by Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark. “In the UK and Western Europe, there's so much tier-one supply capacity being moved into eastern European countries. The majority is in the east already,” he said.

Suppliers are attracted by lower wages and lower energy costs but also because so much car manufacturing has gone east, including JLR to Slovakia.

Reversing that trend in the face of mounting costs is the number-one task in the government’s in-tray for rebuilding the UK car industry.

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