More than 35 years after Honda first pulled into Swindon, the wheels of production at the car manufacturer’s factory in South Marston have come to a halt this week.
The closure follows the Japanese firm’s announcement in March of the sale of its 370-acre Wiltshire site to Europe’s largest developer of new build industrial and logistics facilities Panattoni.
The company first revealed its intention to pull out of the town (and the UK) in 2019 as part of a major restructure of its global operations and a need to focus on electric vehicle production.
The site’s closure, with the end of the current model cycle of the Honda Civic Hatchback, will see the loss of around 3,500 jobs.
A couple of hundred Honda staff will remain on site during the plant decommission, before it’s legal handover to Panattoni, expected in spring 2022.
Commenting on the sale of the site in March, Jason Smith, director at Honda of the UK Manufacturing, said: “We are pleased to have identified a capable new owner of the site.
“From our engagement with Panattoni and initial discussions with Swindon Borough Council, we are confident that the new owner can bring the development forward in a commercially timely fashion and generate exciting prospects for Swindon and the wider community.”
Since 1985, the Honda plant in Swindon has made more than 3.5 million cars and produced more than four million engines, with its peak employment reaching around 4,000 people.
Honda selected the former Vickers airfield on the outskirts of the town as the site for what would be its only car factory in Europe. During the process the carmaker identified a great source of engineering talent in Swindon, following the closure of the railway works.
Swindon’s links to Heathrow Airport, Bristol Docks and the UK automotive industry’s supply based in the Midlands was also a big draw. Operations at the site got underway in 1986 with the engine plant opening before the end of the decade.
In the early years of the operation, pre-delivery inspections of cars imported from Japan were conducted in Swindon with some Honda cars being assembled under licence by Austin Rover at its plant in Longbridge, Birmingham, and Cowley in Oxford.
Construction of the site’s first car plant began in 1991 and opened the following year, signalling the start of production of the Honda Accord. In 1994, the Swindon plant began producing the Honda Civic.
At the turn of the millennium Honda opened its second Swindon car plant, allowing it to increase its production capacity to 250,000 cars a year.
The CR-V sports utility model went into production in 2000 (concluding 18 years later), with the Civic Type R following with the opening of the second plant the next year.
In 2002, Honda’s UK arm began exporting to the US, with the millionth car rolling off the Swindon production line in 2003. The plant reached the two million car milestone in 2008.
In 2014, the UK’s first public hydrogen fuel filling station opened at Honda in Swindon and two years later the site hosted the launch of the 10th generation Civic Hatchback.
Swindon Borough Council’s deputy leader councillor Gary Sumner said Honda had been an “influential” employer in the town and treated its workers and associates well.
Mr Sumner said: “We all know people who work at Honda or have worked at Honda or have friends who work for Honda. We know how it is going to affect so many people.
“It’s an awful shame, we would have loved Honda to have stayed, but they’re a global business, they made this decision and it’s not for us to question that.
“Businesses do change and relocate, we just want to make sure that the Honda workforce are as well supported as possible going forward and they find good, well-paid, and suitable employment again in Swindon.”
Mr Sumner said he was optimistic for the future of the site and the town’s local economy, with Panattoni planning to invest more than £700m into the site in a bid to attract new employers and provide space for businesses looking to expand.
‘Great deal of hope’
Swindon Borough Council previously worked with Panattoni on bringing retail giant Amazon to a two million sq ft warehouse set to be built at Symmetry Park on the edge of the town.
Mr Sumner, the council’s member for strategic infrastructure, transport and planning, confirmed that Panattoni was already “buoyed up” by the interest it had received since acquiring the Honda site.
He said the company had put in a scoping request for up to 7.2 million sq ft at the Honda site.
“It’s a massive site that I think was underused by Honda, more particularly in recent years,” he said.
“It gives a great deal of hope that there will be a good number of jobs on that site, probably many more than existed with Honda.
“Whilst people have questions about the types of jobs that come with what we anticipate will be primarily logistics, modern logistics is very different to people’s perceptions.
“It can involve, as it does with the Amazon plant, advanced robotics, engineering jobs to keep those buildings and those machines going 24/7, and obviously a range of support skills.”
Mr Sumner said the Amazon building would deliver around 1,500 jobs and he was “very optimistic” the Honda site would produce “many more”.
When Honda first announced its decision to close the plant in 2019, hundreds of workers marched across Swindon in an attempt to try and get the company to change its mind.
Mike Godfrey was one of the first employees at Honda Swindon, joining in November 1985. He helped to establish the first building on the site, the inspections centre, and supported the development of the engine plant.
Mr Godfrey helped secure planning permission for the site’s first car plant and then had various positions developing quality, safety and environmental systems, finishing as head of HR in 2011.
Now a non-executive director at Bristol-based chamber of commerce Business West, he said it was a “sad time” for those workers set to lose their jobs.
But he said Honda had been “very generous” with redundancy packages and praised the support offered to its workforce.
“Honda has been very good at giving time and money to go back to college, get qualifications, and learn new skills,” he said.
“The best possible effort has been done internally and externally to give the soon to be made redundant employees at Honda, and of course related industries around Swindon, the best possible chance.”
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Honda has been working alongside Swindon Borough Council, the National Taskforce and the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to support those set to lose their jobs to start their own businesses or to reskill.
Mr Godfrey said the council, LEP and organisations like Business West had been “exceptional” in trying to match skills with known vacancies in the Swindon or Wiltshire area.
But he said not all the Honda workers would have the skills necessary for higher-paid jobs.
“Being a production line worker is a hugely difficult task,” he said. “I’ve done it and standing up for eight hours trying to focus and concentrate to build high-quality products continuously is very, very hard.
“Unfortunately not all those people have the skills required for the higher-paid jobs. There are plenty of jobs in or around Swindon, but the pay and benefits will be nothing like those they were getting at Honda.
“There will have to be some resetting of sights necessary if people want to work locally. The higher-paid manufacturing jobs don’t exist in Swindon.”
Mr Godfrey said he had hoped a manufacturing operation would take on the site.
“An area or a town can’t develop and improve, in my opinion, purely based on people who are employed in logistics,” he said.
“It needs major companies who are prepared to look at manufacturing, or research and development. We already have huge pharmaceutical operations in Swindon; it would be great if something like that could be looked at.
“Obviously Panattoni will develop the site primarily for logistics, I only hope there is some consideration during planning consents to look at their statements which says they will have a mix of operations on the site.
“I cross my fingers and hope that it will genuinely not just be logistics and warehousing. Swindon needs a high-tech industry.”
Matthew Byrom, managing director of Panattoni in the UK, said in March the acquisition of the Honda site would create thousands of jobs.
He said: “The re-development of this strategic employment site will deliver thousands of new opportunities in roles which underpin the operation of the local and regional economy.”
Mr Sumner said he was “very confident” Panattoni would be able to secure a “diverse” range of occupiers that would offer greater protection to Swindon’s economy.
He said the town would be “less vulnerable” having a number of different employers based at the site.
“If you have seven new buildings there for example, each owned by a different company, you’re slightly less vulnerable to a sudden change of heart by a large employer to move,” he explained.
“Swindon has quite a diverse range of employers. Honda was certainly a big one. When you look at the Honda site it will have a more diverse range of employers which I think will cushion it from shocks in the future.”
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