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Halewood's future hinges on new Escort model

Managers of Ford will meet union representatives at Halewood on Thursday to discuss whether or not the new Escort model will be built there. If the company decides against it on cost-cutting grounds it is likely to be the death sentence for the plant.

Unions have agreed to the outsourcing of production that will reduce the number of employees at Ford's Merseyside plant by natural wastage. But the company is seeking new working practices that will cut several hundred jobs out of more than 4,000 to save money.

Last week Ford announced that it had made losses of $472m in Europe in the third quarter after profits of $269m in the first half of 1996. Last year Escort's UK market share fell below 20 per cent for the first time.

The car industry negotiator for the Transport and General Union, Tony Woodley, said that if the company decided against manufacturing the Escort on Merseyside, the union reaction would be "serious and instant".

"It will be for the company to announce whether the new Escort will be built there. If not, that has got massive implications for assembly at Halewood. It would in effect close it," he said.

Thursday's meeting was called by the company and will be attended by its head of manufacturing in Europe. Ford has already told employees in Valencia, Spain, and Saarlouis, Germany, that they will build the new model.

Car making on Merseyside has been turbulent since the leading manufacturers opened plants there in the 1950s and 1960s during government drives to boost regional economic development. British Leyland, the previous incarnation of Rover, closed its site at Speke, which made Triumphs, at the end of the 1970s after an appalling record for productivity, quality and union disruption.

Halewood's future was also periodically in doubt, with a reputation gained during the 1970s as one of Ford's worst manufacturing sites. However vast productivity strides saved the plant in the early 1990s and its current problems have come as a surprise to industry experts.

In contrast, Vauxhall recently announced a pounds 300m investment programme at its plant at Ellesmere Port, securing the future of 3,500 staff.