As full-scale production of the MG TF begins, council leader Mike Whitby remembers the dark days of MG Rover's collapse in 2005 and the work that was done to try to secure a future for automotive manufacturing in Longbridge.
For me - and I am sure many thousands of people in Birmingham – MG Rover’s dramatic collapse on April 7th 2005 was a defining moment.
That evening I was dining with business colleagues at Simpson’s Restaurant, and by 10pm was winding down and looking forward to a good night’s rest (as it turned out, it would be weeks before I would get to have this).
We were interrupted, however, by the council’s Director of Planning & Regeneration, Clive Dutton, who had only joined us a few weeks earlier.
Unable to reach me on the phone he had tracked me down to deliver an urgent message.
On the crowded restaurant floor he could say no more than there was breaking news concerning Longbridge and that we needed to discuss this somewhere privately.
The owner kindly directed us to the only private space they had available – one of their empty guest bedrooms upstairs.
It’s strange how humour finds its way into even the darkest moments, and stepping into the room I remember saying “before we begin Clive I want you to know – this will be the first and last time we share a bedroom together!”
The joke, however, was short-lived as Clive quickly explained that the then Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, had just announced MG Rover’s appointment of administrators.
From those few words I was left stunned.
I had been watching MG Rover’s plight with close concern for months. I knew only too well the significant amount of money they were losing and that they needed equally substantial investment for their next model range.
I understood also that its future might well depend on the outcome of talks in China about a mooted joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) but, like everyone, still expected a positive announcement.
Certainly I did not foresee such an abrupt and complete collapse, and hearing that more than 6,000 skilled jobs, in the industrial heart of our city, were seemingly lost was heartbreaking.
A few seconds passed in stunned silence as I grappled with the reality that MG Rover, a British symbol, was gone. Then we launched into action.
I knew there would be global interest in what happened next.
Rover was much more than a car company. It was the national face of our proud manufacturing heritage, and an international symbol of our economy.
It was vital that we made an immediate commitment to the workers, and their families.
I rushed with Clive to the BBC’s Birmingham offices in the Mailbox, which were closed, but banging on the doors we alerted the security guard who let us in.
Nick Owen, the news presenter, had earlier finished the evening bulletin and with him we received further confirmation that this was happening, watching the story scroll past from Reuters.
I gave an immediate interview for radio and the next day’s television, firmly supporting everyone affected by this tragedy.
Not wanting to lose any momentum, we then raced to Longbridge with a BBC film crew and reporter, Robin Punt.
The plant was silent inside, but outside there was a swell of workers and their families, hoping against hope that a show of their shock and frustration might reverse this tragedy.
Hearing their views, and feeling their pain, was a profoundly moving experience and I personally gave them Birmingham City Council’s support before going back to head up discussions on delivering relief and tackling this crisis.
We moved swiftly and the following morning started to roll out our programme of tangible support; pledging a £10 million package of aid for Rover employees and communities affected across the city.
Within 24 hours we had established a telephone helpline for the workers and their families, offering around the clock support and advice.
By Saturday we had organised a day-long event at Cofton Park, next to the site.
There was a social element to this event but more important was the presence of staff from the Citizens Advice Bureau; the social services department; emergency services; employment advisers; and many others offering practical assistance to Rover workers and their families.
And on the Sunday I sent an open letter to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, (which was published on the front page of the Post with the headline "Save our City") demanding that Central Government recognised the scale of this event, the consequences for our city region, and the level of support which was needed to manage it.
Because this threatened the foundations of our local economy, interventions would have to be of a scale capable of delivering growth and replacing Longbridge’s prosperity, and my demands included funding for New Street Station and Birmingham Airport, and massive investment in south west Birmingham.
In just three busy days, therefore, we had begun to try and ease some of the immediate suffering by leveraging in massive financial support from the council, and had started to build on a crisis with a long-term strategic vision.
This was a genuine disaster for Birmingham. The likely loss of 6,000 jobs, the ending of motor production at Longbridge after 100 years and the knock-on across Rover’s supply chain throughout the region would be devastating. So we were operating on full disaster-relief mode and had to commit all our resources to reducing the impact.
Hard work, of course, continued across the spectrum for a long time after those first few days.
At the regional level, a Rover Task Force was established, with Advantage West Midlands, the Engineering Employers Federation, the Learning & Skills Council and the unions working together to create new employment opportunities.
At the national level, we continued to pressure the government for financial support and I travelled to Downing Street and met Tony Blair on several occasions.
At the global level, it was equally important that we continued to support the interest in Rover from both SAIC, and its rival auto-maker, Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC).
The complex story of how their initial interest ultimately led to today’s momentous news has been well-documented.
For me though, the journey of the last three years has been an intensely personal experience.
I knew on the first occasion I met NAC’s directors, in the summer of 2005, that they were decent people, who would honour their commitments.
There was a good deal of scepticism about their intentions, but only from those with their own personal and political agendas, who were relying on whispers, gossip and rumour.
Good leadership is about meeting people face-to-face and being able to judge their character, and I knew we could trust NAC.
Unfortunately, the government agencies did not, and they wouldn’t even give them the time of day. But we did.
We treated them with the respect they deserved and extended them all the warmth and friendship of Birmingham because we knew how important their plans would be to the future of our city.
When NAC invested £53 million to acquire MG Rover’s assets from the administrators, I was impressed by the open way they conducted their negotiations.
I spend a great deal of time trying to persuade overseas firms to come to Birmingham and, to be honest, the first thing most ask is how much financial support they can get from central government, from us, and from other public sector agencies.
As a businessman myself, I don’t blame anyone for trying to get the best deal possible but it was such a refreshing contrast to meet NAC.
They knew Rover’s history, understood the strength of the MG Rover brand, and were very eager to come to Longbridge. Asking for grants simply was not on their agenda.
Nothing could happen swiftly, largely because of the need to educate NAC about UK business practices.
It was a constant frustration to hear critics complaining, as if it was simply a matter of someone driving up to Q-Gate at Longbridge, walking inside and setting up production lines.
This was NAC’s first venture outside China and the business world over here was a completely new experience for them.
They didn’t understand the planning regime, had never encountered a challenging media and had no concept of the public sector in the UK.
However, from the very beginning our relationship was excellent and I went to great lengths to strengthen it with a whole raft of high-profile activities.
Perhaps most significant of these were the two delegations I lead to Nanjing in 2006 and 2007.
On the first day of the first of these visits we met the city’s mayor, the president of NAC and the Party Secretary of the Chinese government in Nanjing.
It was very clear that even from 5,000 miles away, China’s political leaders had an acute interest in the Longbridge project.
The social and economic parallels between Birmingham and the city of Nanjing were equally evident.
They were the major population centre in their province in the Yangtze River Delta – one of the most dynamic economic regions in China. They had a long history of industrial production and had been forced to re-invent themselves as a modern business centre after tough economic times during the late 1960s and 70s.
Nanjing also had a fast-expanding international airport and was very eager to position itself on the global stage.
It almost felt as if we were in another Birmingham …albeit one five times larger than our own.
On our second visit, we toured NAC’s new manufacturing plant and were impressed by their extraordinary ability to deliver what they said, on time and to budget.
I knew that boded well for their plans to restart MG production at Longbridge and when SAIC acquired NAC it was refreshing to witness their equally solid commitment.
The sniping from some observers about perceived delays was probably inevitable but it was certainly frustrating for me, particularly having the benefit of seeing the bigger picture.
Sensitive international business negotiations can never be conducted in public, so we kept our counsel, always confident of a positive outcome.
Whilst these delegations grabbed headlines, much more work went on in the background.
We were literally creating a new vision for Birmingham, with investment into Longbridge as a shining example of the quality of international investment we could attract.
In order to make this a success it was essential I developed strong personal relationships as foundations for economic growth, and for three years have worked tirelessly to make this happen.
There have been a continuous stream of delegates from China. I have had numerous meetings with the top executives of SAIC and NAC, have met with senior Chinese politicians - local and national - and have become a firm friend with the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Madam Fu Ying.
Rover’s collapse, therefore, was the catalyst for new and dynamic links between ourselves and China, at the widest corporate and political level.
This has happened to the extent that in October 2006 Birmingham hosted the state visit of Mr Jia Qinglin, Chairman of the China Peoples Political Consultative Conference and the fourth most powerful person in China.
This was the very first visit to Birmingham at this level since the G8 summit in 1998, and remains an almost unprecedented move for a Chinese political leader to go anywhere other than London.
Mr Jia even elected to visit me before going to see Tony Blair!
We created a sophisticated sister-city relationship with Guangzhou in 2006, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Nanjing in 2007 and formed the Birmingham-China Business Forum, which underlined our commitment to stimulating two-way trading links.
That venture alone has now been backed by 40 companies and organisations based in Birmingham, and in November I am taking a trade mission to China to underpin the progress made by our combined efforts.
I have also created a dedicated China desk at the council, headed by international officer Kelly Wu, to enrich relationships between Birmingham’s business community and the world’s fastest-growing economy.
Kelly also proved invaluable during the negotiations with NAC and SAIC, and continues to make an exceptional contribution to our China strategy.
Indeed, more than just a catalyst for relations with China this has underlined my vision for Birmingham – as a Global City with a Local Heart – demonstrating the importance we place on the individuals in our communities, whilst proving we can operate independently at the very top of the global stage.
The collapse of Rover was, therefore, a seismic event which changed the lives of thousands of our citizens and the future of our city.
It caused immense pain and suffering, which people still feel acutely today, and I am under no illusion that today’s announcement makes everything immediately alright again.
However, with courage, determination and vision we were able to find a silver-lining in what could have just been a catastrophic blow and, unintentionally, the biggest single blow to our economy for decades became the catalyst for our links with China, and helped drive a new vision for Birmingham.
The announcement of resumption of car production at Longbridge is, therefore, an excellent piece of news – one which we will all hopefully remember – and combined with Tata’s recent acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover and the Russian investment in LDV, perhaps this hints towards a renaissance of the automotive industry in the West Midlands.
Either way, I welcome today’s news and, as someone who has been on this long journey from the beginning, recognise its significance.
There is still a long way to go and a lot more to be done in Longbridge and Birmingham but this is a landmark well worth celebrating.
To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, someone I have admired greatly, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
My best wishes go to SAIC and NAC MG UK Ltd. I know that they will not let Birmingham down.