“B MW’s investment is a huge vote of confidence in this country as a global leader in electric vehicles,” said Jeremy Hunt, as the German car giant backed the production of electric Minis in Oxford. A touch of political hyperbole is understandable since the plant would have been a very bad one for the UK to lose, but the chancellor is overdoing things.
It is obviously welcome news that about 4,000 jobs will be saved in Oxford and Swindon, where the panels are made. And, by recent yardsticks of taxpayer subsidy, the reported £75m contribution to the overall £600m investment almost counts as modest. It’s just the chancellor’s claim that the UK car manufacturing is now “motoring” requires context.
The point about BMW and Oxford is that the UK is playing a defensive game of protecting what we already have. Roughly the same is true about the commitment from Tata to invest in a gigafactory in the UK, thereby securing the largest part by value of the supply chain for Jaguar Land Rover’s switch into electric production in the UK. Stellantis’s production of electric vehicles at its factory in Ellesmere Port, after a £100m investment, falls into the same “saved” bracket.
What’s missing from the story so far is the arrival of new names in UK car manufacturing. The chart above, via the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), shows UK car production since the peak year of 2017, when 1.7m units were made. The decline thereafter came with the Brexit vote, the perhaps related departure of Honda from Swindon, the pandemic and its chip shortages, the rise in the cost of energy and plain old competition. The latest upward tick represents a recovery – but it’s a recovery from the lowest volume output since the 1950s.