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REGIONS EUROPE


Preparing forafuture withoutHonda


DIVESTMENT BY THE JAPANESE CARMAKER HAS LED TO A RETHINK IN SWINDON. ALEX IRWIN-HUNT REPORTS


of England, he recalls the 12 o’clock news sud- denly switching on. The Japanese carmaker Honda had just


A


announced plans to close its Swindon plant, bringing an end to more than three decades of operations, and 3500 jobs, along with thou- sands more in the supply chain. “My phone just leapt off the hook,” he


recalls. As a Unite the Union official, represent- ative forHondaworkers and a formeremployee, Mr Tomala drove straight to the Swindon plant, where he was met with a “media circus” out- side the site. The next day, stewards of Unite the Union


metwithHonda.Thecompany explained that its decision was based on a shift to electric vehicles andthat “Swindonwasnot the right plant touti- lise that type of production”, saysMrTomala. Ascommunitiesbuiltaroundthe automotive


industry deal with the risk of restructuring and divestment worldwide, Swindon is paving the way for a future without Honda, which is shut- ting down its local facility in July 2021. While industrial and logistics developer Panattoni agreed in March to take over the site, with plans to invest £700m and invite new employers, con- cerns persist over whether low-paid jobs will fill the void left by Honda’s departure.


Transformation heritage Swindon is no stranger to transition. The town’s location, halfway between London and Bristol, made it ideal as a stop for the Great Western Railway built by Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In 1843, a railway works building trains


opened next toSwindonstation,andstayedopen until 1986. That year, Honda bought a 370-acre airfield site in South Marston — was formerly a factory for Royal Air Force fighter planes — and began transformingit for itsUKoperations. “[Honda has] been a fantastic partner to


work with, and to have in Swindon for the past 30 or so years,” David Renard, the leader of Swindon Borough Council, tells fDi. Its site in north-east Swindon grew to become its European flagship factory, withone engine and two car plants. In 2001, its capacity rose to 250,000 vehicles per year, including its Accord Civic and CR-V models, and exported to more than 70 countries worldwide. At its peak in 2007, the Japanese carmaker sold more than 311,000 cars into Europe,


70


lan Tomala can remember February 19, 2019, like it was yesterday. While driv- ing to ameeting in Taunton, in the west


according to data compiled by CarSalesBase — many of which were produced in Swindon. But then the financial crisis hit, beginning a decline in Honda’s European sales and a scale- back of its Swindon operations. By 2019, when the closure was announced, Honda was under- utilising its 370-acre site, having sold just 123,000 cars into Europe. As Swindon’s third-largest employer, the


Japanese automaker’s decision to exit the area has created a precarious situation for thousands ofemployees at Honda and in its supply chain. In May 2019, hundreds of Honda workers


marched through Swindon to save their jobs. National and local taskforces of business, politi- cal and community leaders, such as the Honda Steering Group, rallied together to reverse the automaker’s decision. However, despite these efforts, Honda has


stuck to its plans to divest and focus onmarkets in Asia and theAmericas as part of their electri- fication push. Anagreement was reached forHondato pay


its workers redundancy packages equivalent to six-and-a-half weeks’ pay for every year they worked at the plant. A multi-stakeholder group that includes Honda, Swindon Borough Council, and redundancy and business support companies, such as YTKO, LHH and Penna, are also helping to re-skill and support workers to find future career paths.


Hondasupport A company spokesperson tells fDi that Honda’s priorities “continue to focus on providing our [employees] with a comprehensive support pro- gramme, which consists of well-being, finan- cial, training and career-transition provision”. As Honda workers prepare for their future,


the carmaker says it has seen more than 4500 registrations by its employees at networking events with companies and recruiters inter- ested in their skill sets. Jonathan Gratton, who worked at Honda’s


plant in quality assurance since 2012, said it was a “shock” to everyonewhen the closurewas announced. Similar to his colleagues, Mr Grattonhadoriginallymadethemove toHonda for the generous wages and career progression options available at the company. Now, many former workers from both


Honda and its supply chain worry about their future livelihoods, even as other companies such as Amazon are hiring in Swindon. For Mr Gratton, however, support provided by Honda and local business support organisations,


www.fDiIntelligence.com June/July 2021


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