Ian Howells, the senior vice president for Honda in Europe, and the most senior representative of the company in the UK was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. Below is an edited version of the interview:
Q. You’ve been here since the 1980s, through some pretty thick and thin times. Why [leave] now in your own words?
Well clearly it’s a very sad day for us, as you correctly said, we’ve been operating from the factory for about 30 years now, but really what we’re responding to and this was made clear by Takahiro Hachigo [CEO of Honda] as well, is that we’re seeing unprecedented change in the industry. And this is really happening on a global scale such that we’re having to move very very swiftly towards electrification of our motor vehicles and this is a demand from our customers but also from legislation. And it’s really starting to give us some challenges, so we’re having to address that. It means that we’re having to look very closely at where we’re putting investment and targeting that investment in areas where the volumes in the marketplace are of a size for Honda that really make the investment worthwhile.
Q: And that is what? Japan, China, the US?
Generally speaking, yes, but unfortunately the conclusion coming out of that is that this does not include Swindon sadly because of the relative size of the marketplace we have in Europe: about 150,000 units compared to China or the US where we’re looking at 2 million or so. It’s significantly different.
Q: I’ve got a presentation here for employees around Swindon in 2017. And it says following a 200 million pound investment, Swindon will be the global production hub for the Civic from January 2017. That is not long ago. What changed so quickly that none of that holds true?
In 2017 that was the beginning of the production cycle. We have to look at roughly a five year cycle before we look at the next vehicle coming through. We’re now at that point where we’re having to make that decision. What’s actually happened is that decision has collided with this change in electrification that’s come back to then – where do we want to where do we need to put our investments and is best suited for investment. And as I’ve just illustrated a moment ago, that’s China, that’s America, that’s Japan.
Q: If Brexit had not happened, would this investment still be going on?
This is not a Brexit related issue for us. This decision is being made on the basis of the global changes I spoke about. So although we were very clear on our Brexit position, we’ve always seen it as something that we will get through. Nevertheless, these other changes which are coming at us globally, we have to now respond to. And as I said, it’s a really sad day for our people in Swindon and certainly we deeply regret the impact that this is going to have on them and their community.
Q: It seemed to happen very quickly and Greg Clark the business secretary will tell you that he has been bending over backwards to try and make the UK a hub for electrification for electric vehicle manufacturing. Was all of that no use to you?
It’s not of no use from that point of view. Hopefully we’ll see some of those supplies come through to our global production capability. But in terms of where we are in our investments in the UK then I’m afraid we’re in a position where our investments and our focus needs to go somewhere else. It can’t be in the UK and this is really a challenge for us on a global basis and not decisions being made locally by either ourselves or equally by the UK government
Q: If what you say is correct that we are facing unprecedented change and we are looking electrification on a massive scale. And you’re saying that the scale for the UK is just not here. That’s a pretty sorry look out for the rest of the industry in the UK.
I don’t I can’t really explain what’s happening in the rest of the industry just in terms of where we’re going in our competitors in that respect. We have to face the reality that we’ve got.
Q: And a very quick one. What are you going to do to help those people who are going to be without a job come 2022?
Well of course we’re going into consultation now, it is still a proposal, and therefore from that perspective we are looking to put into place a whole raft of support services during the consultation process. And obviously beyond that we’ll be looking to make sure that we are a good partner in terms of helping the government, helping the local authorities and other agencies in the area to make sure our associates come out of this in the best way possible. As I said we do deeply regret the impact this is going to have on Swindon, on the community and on our associates.
Listen to the whole interview here: