About 200 delegates from across the business and political spectrum descended on the ICC in Birmingham for the Auto Industry Summit. Post reporter Anna Blackaby gives her take on proceedings.
At eight o’clock, the great and good of the West Midland car industry trudged through the slushy pavements of Broad Street and picked carefully over the frozen snow on Centenary Square, aiming for Hall 4 of the ICC.
The extreme weather conditions – the after-effects of the worst snow the UK has seen for 20 years – provided a handy analogy not lost on Mike Whitby in his opening comments at the West Midlands Auto Industry Summit.
He introduced proceedings by describing the prevailing economic conditions faced by the automotive industry as “cold and frosty”.
And when Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves conducted a quick straw poll of suppliers in the room and their confidence in prospects this year, the results were enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
He asked how many delegates were from the supply sector – over 50 per cent of the hands shot up.
But only two thirds remained up when asked how many of those firms were confident they would still be in business in six months.
A chilling prospect when you think each disappearing hand represents a devastating blow to the tens or more of employees of each firm, not forgetting the irreparable damage job losses would cause to families and communities.
But the overall tone was far from doom and gloom. People came from a vast array of backgrounds – carmakers such as Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin, union bosses, Colmore Row professionals, politicians, business support bodies and an army of supply companies.
Also present were the national media with the BBC and Financial Times in attendance, as well as local media including live blogging and video on the website of the Birmingham Post.
An atmosphere of mutual respect, solidarity and determination prevailed, with Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley sitting alongside Jaguar Land Rover chief executive David Smith, and academics such as Professor David Bailey rubbing shoulders with Rachel Eade from Accelerate, the body set up to support SME automotive supply firms.
Delegates were united in their passion for the West Midland car industry.
The prestige, built over decades, that would disappear with the army of world-class engineering talent is something that cannot easily be rekindled.
After hearing the panel it was time for people on the ground to put their heads together to feed back on the gaps in Lord Mandelson’s £2.3billion support package.
All the points coming out will be distilled into a communiqué for the man himself at the CBI dinner this week.
A broad consensus emerged regarding, among others, the need to reinvigorate the credit insurance market, wage subsidies and stimulate demand.
The longer term need to get youngsters aspiring to a career in engineering was also raised.
‘Real engineering’ was present in droves – with a clear message for government it must be listened to if Lord Mandelson’s vision of an engineering-focused low carbon economy is ever going to materialise.
Let’s hope the voices of “real engineering” in the West Midlands will be listened to.