MG Rover Closure: 'What happened to all that money?'

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The Independent Online

It doesn't matter how long the illness; the end when it comes is still a shock. Such was the case in Longbridge yesterday, where few people were surprised that the last giant of the British car manufacturing industry had finally succumbed to a lingering sickness. But many were still devastated.

It doesn't matter how long the illness; the end when it comes is still a shock. Such was the case in Longbridge yesterday, where few people were surprised that the last giant of the British car manufacturing industry had finally succumbed to a lingering sickness. But many were still devastated.

They were angry, too, that it was allowed to decay, and angry that the management sold off parts of the business and took out large sums of money. Words such as "betrayal'' and "stabbed in the back'' were on many lips.

"It's a shock,'' said Mark Shaw, 33, a welder at Longbridge for 15 years and who lives in a nice row of semi-detached houses just behind the plant. "In one week we've lost our jobs. We were doing overtime two weeks ago. My anger is directed at Phoenix. They've walked out with their pockets bulging and we've walked out with nothing. I have a daughter of five and a four-month-old baby and I don't know what's going to happen.

"I want to know what happened to all the money - BMW left half a billion when they pulled out. We've done everything asked. We worked overtime seven days a week. What else could we do?''

Bob Miles, 53, who has worked at Longbridge for 37 years as a seat fitter, shares this view. On Friday he went to the job centre for the first time in his life. There were tears welling in his eyes when he tried to describe how depressing he found the experience. "There were 100 people in there,'' he said. "I've supported the system for 37 years, now it's time for the system to support me. In the Seventies we were all to blame but we've been model employees in the last five years. We were the most hardworking workforce in the country.''

But more pressing in the short term is money, especially with rumours flying that there will be nothing for 12 weeks. "I'm scared,'' said Bob's wife, Gail, 52, a practice manager. "I don't know what we're going to do. We've only got my wage now and that's already gone. The workforce needs counselling and support. I work in a doctors' surgery and can see we're going to be the only people who'll be busy dealing with stress. I had to leave early myself on Friday.''

In nine days it will be exactly 99 years since the first Austin rolled off the production line. Eighty years later they were still using some of the same machinery according to Peter Lowe, 82. He was a Longbridge worker for 48 years until he retired in the Eighties and one of many former workers who yesterday gathered at the factory's main gate to say goodbye.

Everyone is able to diagnose Longbridge's problem: a lack of investment. "Only the Japanese put money in when they fitted the factory with robots in the 1980s,'' says Robert Pattison, 49, who has worked there for 29 years.

The main entrance is presentable enough but a walk around the back and sides of the 200-acre site tells its own story. It is surrounded by derelict buildings that were long ago hived off, and behind the rusty railings are broken windows, potholed, patched and cracked tarmac and an air of decay. It looks, one bystander says, like a scrapyard.

The office buildings, some with cracks in the brick walls, date from the 1950s. There is nothing modern about it, except for thousands of unsold cars, corralled in a huge car park and the odd one inside the front gate that have an air of abandonment about them.

At the local newsagents Sally and Roger Page say that the plant only really supplies 5-10 per cent of their business. "It's not like the old days when they came in on foot,'' says Mrs Page, 58. "Now they live all over and come in in cars. So I don't think it will affect our business too much. We'll have to wait and see. The main thing now is the gloom. People are very down. They are depressed and uncertain. It's been a long and gradual decline but we didn't believe it would happen.''

It is a similar story across the road at the florist, the owner of which is not concerned about loss of business. Sally Powell, 45, said: "I blame the Government. They should have put money in a lot earlier. I wouldn't vote for Blair or Michael Howard.'' Her daughter chips in: "Vote Ukip or BNP. Keep it British.''

Interestingly, the workers clear Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and blame Phoenix squarely.

Yesterday afternoon the Austin Federation of owners' clubs gathered outside the factory gates. They had planned a meeting to mark the centenary of the factory's founding this year. They were to meet in one of the office buildings. Instead, they adjourned down the road to St John the Baptist.

There the priest, Colin Corke, one of the factory's two chaplains, has offered them the church hall. "We usually do half a day a week in the factory,'' he says. "This last week we've spent half a day in the parish.''

Peter Thomas, the other factory chaplain and vicar of St Stephen's (two parishes slice the factory in two), sums up the importance of Longbridge. He said: "There is a different feeling in this factory. We've been in other factories but none have had the friendliness. People chose to stay here five years ago. They wanted to make a go of it. There is a sense of bereavement now. Bereavement for the money, yes, but also bereavement for the fellowship.''

THE PHOENIX FOUR

John Towers, 57, chairman

Was chief executive of Rover in early 1990s before joining an engineering firm. When he took over Rover in 2000 he claimed he wasn't in it for personal gain. "I was thinking yesterday that I really must develop a 'greedy bastard' profile because, unfortunately, people think you're a bit odd if your aims are modest," he said at the time.

Nick Stephenson, 56, deputy chairman

Worked with Towers at Perkins Engines in the 1970s. Was on the Rover board from 1996 to 1999. Is now a director at Mira, a consultancy which received £2.4m from MG Rover in 2000-02.

Peter Beale, 49, director

Accountancy background. Publicly admitted last year the four men had taken "extraordinary rewards" from the company for taking "extraordinary risks".

John Edwards, 52, director

Estimated salary of £500,000. Benefited from £16.5m trust fund set up for directors. Owns two planes and has a spa bath and indoor swimming pool in his six-bedroom Warwickshire home.

Steve Bloomfield

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