UK car manufacturing falls 14.4 per cent in tenth consecutive month of decline

Softening demand in Europe and Asia, coupled with model changes and shifting global car segment preferences, cause manufacturing drop

The number of cars produced in the UK fell 14.4 per cent year-on-year in March, according to the latest figures from the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders).

Some 126,195 cars rolled off production lines in the UK last month, compared with 147,505 in March 2018, representing the tenth consecutive month of decline.

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Production for the home market took the biggest hit, falling 18.1 per cent year-on-year from 32,808 to 26,873. Meanwhile, exports – which currently make up of 77.8 per cent of UK-manufactured cars – saw a 13.4 per cent drop from 114,697 to 99,322.

Overall year-to-date manufacturing is currently down 15.9 per cent from 440,530 to 370,289. The continued decline has been blamed on softening sales in the European and Asian markets, as well as model changes and shifting global car segment preferences.

The SMMT says that if the ongoing Brexit negotiations have a “positive result” – which it describes as a “favourable deal and transition period maintaining the status quo” – UK car production could stand 1.36 million units for the whole 2019, down from 1.52 million in 2018, before rising back up to 1.42 million by 2021.

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, though, and conducts business on WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms, the SMMT predicts manufacturing will fall by around 30 per cent from current levels to as low as 1.07 million units by 2021.

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes urged the Government to “find a compromise” on Brexit in order to go about “diverting energy and investment to the technological challenges that will define the future of the global industry”.

UK car manufacturing and investment hit by “deeply depressing” decline

The latest figures from 2019 follow a “deeply depressing” decline of 9.1 per cent in 2018, the same year investment in the UK automotive industry fell by a “disturbing” 46.5 per cent.

Some 1.52 million cars were built in the UK in 2018, a 9.1 per cent decline on the previous year, when 1.67 million left factories. While production at MINI plants rose by 7 per cent, Vauxhall saw a 15.9 per cent fall in the number of cars it produced in the UK, with Nissan down 10.7 per cent, Toyota down 10.4 per cent and Jaguar  Land Rover witnessing a 15.6 per cent production reduction.

Brexit-related uncertainty, diesel downturn, regulatory changes, model cycles, market stagnation in Europe, and slowdown in China have been cited amongst the reasons for the manufacturing slump.

The biggest concern for UK automotive, however, which employs around 856,000 people across the wider industry, is the fall in investment witnessed last year.

The chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), Mike Hawes, said: “The most disturbing feature of the figures is about automotive investment. Last year, total automotive investment was £588.6 million for the year. The previous year was about £1.1 billion. The year before that it was about £1.6 billion. If you look at a running average over the last three or four years, it’s about £2.5 billion. We had some good years coming out of the recession where it reached £5 billion, so to be down at £588.6 million shows investment is effectively stalled.”

Hawes placed blame for the stalled investment firmly at the feet of Brexit: “We know uncertainty is the big enemy of business. We need a deal.” He added the industry was on “red alert” for the threat of no deal, adding: “Brexit uncertainty has already done enormous damage to output, investment and jobs.”

Declining investment is “also about sentiment”, Hawes added. “You can be very competitive and have all the right positions…but do you feel confident about investing in the UK for the longer term? You might be competitive now, but do you feel welcome as an investor, and do you feel confident about the positions?”

In an attack on those who considered a no-deal Brexit feasible or desirable, Hawes said: “There are new proposals coming out politically every day. Issues around ‘no deal can be managed’ – for us, that is a fantasy.” Asked about ‘project fear’, Hawes simply explained that “the numbers give a lie to that…investment figures, production figures; if it’s project fear, we’re doing a good impression of it being a reality.”

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Addressing the idea that German car companies would put pressure on their government for fear of losing UK sales, Hawes said “Utter, utter nonsense. They’ve been there.”

Asked if there were a sense that confidence and investment had caused irreparable damage to the UK car industry, Hawes said while we were not at the point, he suspected we were “very close…there’s exasperation…there’s an on-going uncertainty…We haven’t reached the point of no return but, at some point, you will reach it.”

Turning to another common refrain among those who see Brexit as opening up new trade deals, Hawes said: “When we leave, we still have to operate with our biggest market by far under the rules Europe sets. At the moment, we have a seat at the table, we can influence those rules. The other major regulatory hub is obviously Washington. Should we do a free trade deal with America? I can’t ever see us having a seat at the table. They set their rules.

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