'Vauxhall is Luton. What's going to happen now?'

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The Independent Online

When drivers pull off Junction 10 of the M1 into Luton they are likely to notice two things: one will be a plane taking off from the town's airport, the other will be a huge illuminated white Vauxhall sign.

When drivers pull off Junction 10 of the M1 into Luton they are likely to notice two things: one will be a plane taking off from the town's airport, the other will be a huge illuminated white Vauxhall sign.

The airport and the car factory, which has been producing vehicles in Luton since 1905, are the bedrock of the Bedfordshire town's economy.

However, yesterday's announcement, made more than 3,000 miles away in Detroit, means that within two years the lights on that sign will be disappearing, along with 2,000 local jobs.

The Vauxhall plant had been under threat two years ago, but until yesterday workers believed their jobs were safe after costs were reduced and the American owners, General Motors, gave assurances that a replacement for the Vauxhall Vectra motor car would be made in the town.

Yesterday reaction at the factory gates was, at first, one of shock, turning to disbelief and then anger. The fact that employees were not told of the closure directly - and that the announcement came two days before the Christmas shutdown - only intensified the bitter reaction among shell-shocked staff.

For Ray Smith, 30, who has worked at the Vauxhall factory for 14 years, it was a bitter end to long association. "I am gutted," he said sadly. "I've got two kids, aged 11 months and four years, it's not good news at any time - but especially at this time of year it's terrible.

"There are thousands of people going to be looking for jobs in this area, so it's going to be really hard. Everyone here is angry because we are always the last to know. Most of us heard it on the radio.''

Forklift driver Jason Boniface, 28, of Flitwick, Bedfordshire said: "We knew something had to happen but we didn't know which plant would be closed.

"For me it's not so bad because I am still young and have another chance, but some haven't got a chance now. What's going to become of this place? Vauxhall is Luton. It employs so many people round here. No time is a great time, but this is a really bad time of year for it to come.''

For others even the optimism of youth did little to soften the blow.

Liam Murphy 21, who had just finished his apprenticeship, said: "Everyone is really shocked. I don't think anyone knows exactly what's going on. I am worried.

"It's not going to be a very good Christmas with this news hanging over us.''

For many the timing of the announcement appeared to be the most bitter pill of all.

At a time of year when the town, decked in festive fairy lights, was preparing to celebrate the holidays the shockwaves are expected to be felt far beyond the factory gates. Local retailers, service industries and suppliers to the plant are all likely to suffer from the economic fallout.

Pravin Panchal, 45, who has worked at Vauxhall for 22 years said: "It's going to be a different Christmas for everyone. People will take a dim view about Christmas this year and will be wise not to spend too much when they go shopping.

"Everyone's concerned and angry, but what can we do? I feel really unsure about my future.

"Luton is not a particularly prosperous town despite its location in the Home Counties, and the outlook for the New Year is now bleak.

The town's Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the closure could cost a total of around 6,000 jobs as well as affect tens of thousands of local people.

Another worker, leaving the factory in a fittingly depressing downpour, said: "Everybody's always said that if Vauxhall sneezes then Luton gets a cold.

"That is what's going to happen. House prices will be dropping and there will be a lot of people out of work.''

Across the road from the factory is a shopping centre which, perhaps significantly, was all but deserted yesterday evening.

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