Longbridge decides to halve production of flagship model and scrap night shift

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Rover began to cut production drastically at two of its main factories yesterday as BMW's decision to sell the loss-making company started to bite.

Production of the flagship Rover 75 at the Cowley plant near Oxford is being reduced from 2,200 to 1,000 cars a week. The night shift is being axed, but there will be no lay-offs among the 3,500 workers.

Production cuts of 20 per cent are being made at Longbridge, Birmingham. These will mainly affect the Rover 25 and 45 models, of which 4,400 are usually built each week. The three-day Easter shutdown at Longbridge is being extended to five days. The decisions are believed to have been prompted by a predicted fall in sales caused by the uncertain future for Rover.

As the new shift arrangements and production schedules began yesterday, a Midlands millionaire revealed his plan to form a consortium to buy Rover. John Hemming, a West Midlands-based computing entrepreneur and Liberal Democrat member of Birmingham City Council, said he would register his interest with BMW in the next few days.

Mr Hemming acknowledged that the outline deal to buy the Longbridge plant secured by Alchemy, the venture capital company, gave it a substantial advantage. However, he insisted that a new consortium would bring a better deal for the people of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

"We are going through what figures we can, and I am very interested in creating an alternative bid," Mr Hemming said. "It's early days. Normally, you wouldn't do any publicity at this stage, but I'm hoping for other people to come in on this. We've only got six weeks." He said the region had the relevant technical, managerial and entrepreneurial expertise to create a viable bid.

Mr Hemming said he had spoken to Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, and the development agency Advantage West Midlands.

Union leaders yesterday predicted that thousands would attend a march on 1 April as part of the campaign against the plan by BMW to sell its British subsidiary.

Tony Woodley, chief negotiator for the Transport & General Workers Union, said the Birmingham rally would be the biggest event of its kind since the support for the miners in the mid-Eighties.

"The response we have had since deciding to hold this rally just 12 hours ago has been unbelievable," he said. "This campaign is now a battle for Britain and British manufacturing, and it has struck a chord with the British people. I will tell BMW tomorrow that they are foolish to ignore the strength of feeling."

Union leaders, who fear that 10,000 jobs are at risk if Rover is broken up and production cut at Longbridge, are today flying to Munich for a meeting with BMW executives. They will warn the German company that it has under-estimated the strength of feeling in Britain about the sell-off.

The unions still hope that the Rover group can be kept intact if another buyer can be found. Hundreds of company shop stewards met in the Midlands yesterday to hear details of the union campaign, including the planned rally in Birmingham.

At a meeting on Monday attended by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, union leaders agreed to keep up the pressure on BMW not to break up Rover.

Despite ministerial misgivings about fanning anti-German sentiment, Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, repeated his call for a boycott of BMW cars.

Sir Ken said: "We have been flooded with messages of support for the campaign. It is clear that the public is as appalled as we are over BMW's behaviour. We would ask car buyers to think about how BMW treated tens of thousands of workers in the Midlands. People will then make their own judgement about whether to buy the cars.

"BMW has lied to us, lied to the Government, lied to Rover dealers and lied to the British public. This is not the way we do business in this country. We expect better.

"If BMW fails to honour its obligations to the Midlands its reputation will suffer in the region for the next 15 to 20 years," Sir Ken said.

However, other trade unionists were less enthusiastic about a boycott, because British workers distribute and sell BMWs and the German company will continue to make vehicles at Cowley.