Bosses at the UK’s largest car manufacturing plant have urged ministers to do more to support businesses in the North East in a bid to tackle rising unemployment levels.
Japanese car giants Nissan unveiled the second generation Qashqai at their Wearside plant which has seen the company’s workforce swell past the 7,000 mark for the first time in its history.
More than £530m has been ploughed into making the model since it was first produced in Sunderland in 2006 and the latest design will create more than 500 jobs over the coming months.
But yesterday - as the first Qashqai cars rolled off the production line - Kevin Fitzpatrick, vice president of UK manufacturing, said the region was “lagging behind the rest of the country” and said more must be done to draw in larger businesses.
He said: “The Government has done a really good job of trying to re-balance the economy in terms of manufacturing and engineering. In terms of the North East we are the only region with a positive trade balance and that remains strong in the area. But the North East is lagging behind and Government needs to do more.
“The other issue is that in the North East 90% of the companies registered are small and medium enterprises with less than 50 employees. These companies need a lot of development for small businesses to grow enough to impact on employment figures.
“Nissan is playing its part - we have created about 3,000 or 4,000 jobs here in the plant or in the supply chain in the last couple of years.
“The Government does need to do more but I think this is the first Government where we’ve seen a policy shift and change in direction and it will take time. It would be quicker if we could attract bigger investors - the region has done well to attract Hitachi - but you need more.”
The new Nissan Qashqai is built on Sunderland’s Line 1, which has been running on 24-hour operations since 2010 to meet demand, and where the 100% electric Nissan Leaf is also made. Around 286,000 Qashqai cars were built last year, with production numbers expected to be similar in 2014. Colin Lawther, the senior vice president for manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain management in Europe, said there were no plans to expand the plant further or invest more cash.
He also said that the ongoing discussions over UK’s status within the European Union would not put the success of Nissan’s Sunderland plant at risk. He said: “I think we are fairly well-embedded in the Sunderland area and we have long been established in the area.
“We want to continue to work in a northern trade environment and if there was any change in legislation or regional organisation we would fit our business around that. In a lot of respects it’s really just speculation and we are not spending any management time focusing on that.”
Asked about the UK economy, Nissan’s chief performance officer Trevor Mann said: “Unemployment seems to be down year on year, almost on a monthly basis, which is sign that the economy is recovering and perhaps the Government policies are working. It just goes to show if you can get a competitive manufacturing operation driven by great products, as we are here, there is room for growth.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Nissan supports 40,000 jobs across the UK, and when you add that to the half a billion pound investment that Nissan have made in this country for this new model, it shows how our long term plan is giving companies the confidence to invest and create jobs in Britain.”