Have Rover workers been shown a red light?
The Rover factory stands like a citadel on the southern edge of Birmingham, creating a border between the city and the rolling Worcestershire countryside. The factory is surrounded by a mixture of middle-class areas of full employment and concrete tower blocks and council estates.
Of the 39,000 people employed by the Rover group, around 14,000 are based at Longbridge in Birmingham. Not only is Longbridge the biggest employer in Birmingham, many Brummies proudly boast it is the biggest factory in Britain. The news of 2,400 redundancies as part of a drive to cut costs or face the closure of the factory at Longbridge, is a body blow to a city built on the motor industry.
Birmingham has worked harder than most to shed its industrial image, having hosted the G8 Summit and Eurovision Song Contest this year alone. Yet nearly everyone living in the city knows someone works at “the Rover”.
Richard Burden, the Labour MP whose Northfield constituency covers the Longbridge plant, pulls no punches about the implication of Rovers’ decision on the city. He said: “If BMW pulled the plug that would be a catastrophe. The effect would be ripples down along the line. It has been estimated that between four and six jobs will be affected for every one at Longbridge.”
Although the MP, whose constituency has an average unemployment figure of around 7%, is already looking to the future such as attracting new businesses to the area, he knows it is vital to keep the plant open. Mr Burden, whose household has a Mini and a Rover 200, said: “The closure and loss of Longbridge is infinitely worse than anything else.
“People are very worried, inevitably. This has been bubbling under the surface for months ever since the announcement of the job losses in the summer. Either outcome would have serious consequences for the West Midlands but we also need to look at the bigger picture – our objective is to secure Longbridge’s future.”
One of the three Labour councillors for Longbridge area, Gordon Green told BBC News Online he believes the implications of the news have yet to sink in properly.
Councillor Green said: “Everyone is having to hold their breath but I don’t think it has really sunk in yet. “In the past there’s been so many stories about possible difficulties that will hit the factory but at the moment I think this has only hit the families of the people immediately involved.”
The Rover plant, which produces the Rover 200, 400, MG and Mini, is currently undergoing massive regeneration to prepare for the production of the new Mini which will be unveiled in 2000. Although the plant is nowhere near the productivity of Japanese giants like Nissan, it has a come a long way from the strike dominated days of British Leyland in the 1970s.
The news the new Mini was to be built in Birmingham led most people to believe jobs were secure at Longbridge. Councillor Green said: “BMW are pouring millions and millions into the site while on the other hand you have worrying reports of thousands of jobs going – it’s all very hazy.”
The news of job losses has been front page news for the Birmingham Evening Mail every night this week. The paper’s business editor Jon Griffin said: “There is an incredible amount of bitterness towards the company at the moment and morale is at an all time low. Workers are saying they’ve bent over backwards for this company. I’ve spoken to one who has moved around four different shifts in the drive for flexibility.”
The atmosphere across the city is one of doom and gloom – a stark contrast to the razzamatazz of the Birmingham International Motor Show taking place this week. The city is very proud of the motor show which attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe but this year’s event has been overshadowed by the crisis at Rover.
Mr Griffin said: “It was a very strange atmosphere at the motor show. The new Rover was launched in the morning with champagne and glitz and then in the afternoon there was a press conference announcing that jobs could go. It was a bombshell not only to those at the motor show but to the entire West Midlands.
“There will be a spin-off affect throughout the Midlands. It is very bad news and it could get worse – there’s no suggestion this is the end of it.”