THE government has been urged not to let slow progress over Brexit undermine the UK automotive industry’s hard-won competitiveness.
In a keynote speech at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ 101st annual dinner in London last night, organisation president Tony Walker said there was no substitute for free and frictionless trade, and he called for quicker progress on agreeing a transition period following Brexit.
Addressing more than 1,100 industry leaders, business secretary Greg Clark and other stakeholders, Walker – who is the deputy managing director of Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK and managing director of Toyota Motor Europe – said that while Theresa May had embraced the need for a period of transition to avoid a post-Brexit cliff edge, ‘we need to see concrete progress – and quickly’.
This transition, he added, ‘should be on the current terms and, crucially, not time-limited’, to give industry time to adjust and secure long-term investment decisions. He said: ‘We will never stop striving to be competitive. But we ask government to help provide the conditions in which we can compete. Like every other industry, we need certainty now.’
Praising the sector for its transformation over the past 25 years, Walker said: ‘I am very proud that today our UK automotive industry competes globally on quality, productivity, flexibility and cost. We have delivered an export-led renaissance. But we are not complacent. Competitiveness comes hard-won. It can be easily lost. A hard Brexit would undermine all that we have collectively achieved. It is a real threat – a hurdle we cannot ignore.’
He stated that the lack of progress over Brexit was already having an impact on the automotive sector. ‘We have huge challenges. Consumer confidence has fallen leading to a downturn in sales. Uncertainty about Brexit – and market confusion over diesel – are taking their toll,’ he said
Walker spoke as the SMMT released new figures illustrating what it said were the high stakes of a no-deal Brexit for the sector. The risk, it said, came not just from costly World Trade Organisation tariffs – which would add at least £4.5bn to the industry’s annual overheads – but also from customs checks, red tape and fees on goods that currently move friction-free across borders.
He addressed the issue of air quality as well, saying: ‘We have invested billions of pounds in clean, low-emission technologies, leading change by electrifying the market through the introduction of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell cars. The internal combustion engine is not dead – it is the path to a cleaner and greener future. Banning diesel and petrol cars might be a soundbite that works but it’s not a policy that works. If you ban them you disrupt the new car market and you hamper investment in the electric, emission-free vehicles of tomorrow. You set the future back.’
Also at the dinner was comedian, actress, writer and self-confessed petrolhead Jennifer Saunders, who said: ‘I was delighted to be part of such a wonderful night for the automobile industry’. Arriving at the Grosvenor House hotel venue in a Union Jack-decorated, all-new, electric black cab, she entertained attendees with a humorous look at how the shapes and sizes of cars have changed over the years, and what the prospect of driverless cars means for people.
Pictured at last night’s dinner are, from left, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes, Tony Walker and Jennifer Saunders
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