THE WEEK THAT WAS: The portents are not good for Luton

By Graeme Roberts | 17 September 2010

A combination of my bad knee playing up, inspection of the tea leaves left in the newsdesk cup and one of those-omits-more-than-it-tells press releases one occasionally gets from automakers has me a bit worried about yet another UK vehicle assembly plant this Friday afternoon. I hope I'm wrong.

We've been batting the future of General Motors' Vauxhall van plant at Luton around for quite a while now. Unlike the adjacent car plant which once sent Viva, Victor and Cresta to an empire on which the sun never set, and even the US, and ended its days some years ago making Vectras, the van plant is still there busily assembling the second generation of the jointly developed Opel/Vauxhall/Renault Vivaro/Trafic. Trouble is, as we've reported earlier, it only has work till 2013 and there is a big silence after that.

The latest announcement confirmed a third generation would also be jointly developed and, one assumes, built but there was a conspicuous absence of that little word 'Luton'. "There are many aspects of the project to discuss and agree. No further details regarding the product specification, investments or business arrangements will therefore be communicated at this point in time," the automakers said firmly in their statement. So, of course, our French speaking Monsieur Simon Le Warburton rang them regardless to find everyone resolutely on-message: no comment. Last June, Renault ominously said it would build a new commercial vehicle at its Sandouville plant in France and, given its commitment to the French government of jobs-stay-in-France-in-return-for-an-emergency-loan, I 'ave an 'orrible feeling British workers are going to be the sacrificial lambs in all this.

There is a perception out there that UK workers are easier to sack and, after all, Vauxhall staff are further away from Renault head office in Paris and likely to be less angry - ever seen a French farmers' freeway blockade on TV? So, if this happens as I suspect, we will see a predictable process: closure announcement, union leader and politician hand-wringing, token strike, maybe a union leaders' trip to Paris, last unit off line, TV news coverage of workers leaving plant for last time, wrecking ball. Well, that's more or less what happened up the M1 and left a bit, at PSA's old Peugeot 206 plant east of Coventry. I drove past our own own little Buick City look-alike just a few weeks ago. All that's left is a bit of overgrown concrete and the inevitable 'for sale or lease' signs. Sad, but the way of the modern auto world.

Any good news? Well, it looks like the strike down in South Africa is pretty much over, Mark Bursa sent this from his first visit to Korea in a while and it was 'all change' in parts of the autobiz early in the week. Fair kept us busy keeping Our Little Black Book up to date.

Have a nice weekend.

Graeme Roberts
Deputy/News Editor