Vauxhall pins hopes on electric future; Mandelson offers support.Byline: NEIL HODGSON
VAUXHALL'S Ellesmere Port plant last night pinned its survival prospects on winning the right to build an electric car alongside the new Astra as talks over its future near a conclusion.
Bids for GM Europe, including the Vauxhall and Opel brands, are coming to an end and a winner could be revealed next week.
Management and unions made a strong case to build the European version of General Motors' (GM) electric car, the Ampera, to Business Secretary Lord Mandelson during a site tour yesterday.
The Ampera is designed on similar lines to Ellesmere Port's new Astra and will be built on the same production line as an Astra.
GM's Bochum plant, in Germany, and the Gliwice factory, in Poland, can build Astras and will be in the mix for the Ampera.
But Ellesmere Port bosses believe they are in the driving seat, having raised the issue with Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a site visit two years ago.
And Lord Mandelson remarked to GM officials on his tour when the Ampera was raised: "Gordon reminded me of that this morning."
The new Astra will hit the showrooms in December and is expected to be produced until 2015. But designers are already working on its replacement and a decision on who gets it will be made between 2012 and 2013.
The Ampera could be on the market by 2011, and, if Ellesmere Port can win the right to build it, the plant's long-term future would almost certainly be assured, whoever owns GM Europe.
Bill Parfitt, GM UK chairman and managing director, said: "The floor plan here is the platform on which the Ampera will be built.
"You have to turn the question around the other way and ask, 'why wouldn't it be built here'?" In the meantime, Lord Mandelson will be holding talks with GM Europe front runners Magna and RHJ, who have pledged to retain Vauxhall production in the UK in return for about pounds 430m of Gover nment funding.
But Lord Mandelson posed the question yesterday: "Production at what level, what models, how many shifts and what time in the future? "I and the British Gover nment are going to be at the table negotiating these details and it depends what we get back for Vauxhall, for Britain, in return for taxpayers' money.
He added: "We have an absolutely first rate plant here with high productivity. The workforce has moved a long way to cut costs. My job is to make sure that is well understood by both bidders.
"Ellesmere Port not only has a glorious past but a very important and prosperous future as well.
"It has a great workforce, great productivity, great cars and a great future."
Speaking before the tour, Stephen Broomhead, chief executive of regeneration body the Northwest Development Agency, which has given almost pounds 9m of training grants to the plant, said: "My hope for today is Lord Mandelson sees this plant as a real world-class manufacturing plant which has managed change well and will manage change in the future, particularly current eco-friendly products like the Ampera electric car."
Andrew Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, added: "We have had massive improvements in productivity here and it is a leading edge plant. Also, the UKrepresents one fifth of GM Europe's market, so we believe the economic case is unassailable and Ellesmere Port ought to have a long term future."
Plant union convenor John Fetherstone declared his delight with the tour after holding talks with the Business Secretary.
"His first words to us were 'we have got shared goals'.
"You can't fault what he said. The commitment seems to be there from him, and, if it is from him, it is from the Gover nment."
New hope in long-running row over European funding for JLR LORD Mandelson admitted he was "perplexed" by holdups in talks backing European funding to help Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).
on the board among a series of moves in return for backing the loan.
But he added he was now "impatient" to resolve the issue with JLR owner Tata to confirm a 340m euro loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB). Last week, JLR announced 300 job losses at its Halewood plant and early cessation of its Jaguar X-Type model because of the uncertain market.
And he revealed he has postponed his holidays to bring matters to a speedy conclusion. But, during yesterday's visit to Ellesmere Port, Lord Mandelson told reporters: "My officials, as we speak, are holding talks with JLR and Tata and I would anticipate these coming to a conclusion in the next day or so."
Government approval is needed to underwrite the EIB loan to ensure JLR can continue to trade through the worst business conditions in generations.
But it was claimed the Government had demanded a place But he added: "We are looking to Tata to put their money on the table, bearing in mind what I am offering is taxpayers' money."We have a first rate plant here
John Fetherstone Andrew Miller Stephen Broomhead Business Secretary Lord Mandelson during yesterday's tour of the Vauxhall plant, in Ellesmere Port