As Swindon edges closer to the departure of Honda, its third-largest employer, the British town is paving the way for future development and investment.
David Renard, leader of Swindon Borough Council, speaks to fDi about supporting businesses and workers affected by Honda’s divestment, and the grand plan for the town’s future.
Q: Swindon has a history of reinventing itself. How does this play out today with Honda’s divestment?
A: I think it’s as relevant now as it was back in the 1980s [when Swindon’s railworks closed and Honda became part of the town]. I fully understand Honda’s decision from a business point of view: most of their car sales are in Asia and the Americas, so Europe is not a key place for them to be anymore.
But they’ve been fantastic partners to work with and to have in Swindon for 30 or so years. We’re sad to see them go, but there’s very clearly a future after Honda. We’ve already got lots of interested companies investing in Swindon in very large sums of money.
The future is looking bright, but there will be a difficult period between Honda leaving and those new businesses coming and getting established.
Q: What do you see as the future of the town?
A: I think the future is very bright. Unemployment levels have always been very low here. Obviously, we’ve had a downturn with the pandemic and all the indicators are that we’ll come out of it very strongly, and more strongly than other parts of the country.
People can come here and have a very good life because housing costs are very low, whether you’re buying or renting, compared with the rest of the south of England.
The Zurich investment in the town centre is hugely important and significant. It has made a commitment to the town, with a new building worth around £38m in investment. Zurich has made it clear that it wants to continue to grow its business here, keep their employees here and perhaps even bring new ones in.
That’s the first brand new office building that is being built in Swindon for more than 20 years. We’ve got a lot of office stock, but a lot of it is not particularly fit for the 21st century. Some of it is being redeveloped by the owners as residential.
That is part of the mix we need for a thriving town centre: a smaller retail footprint, more people living here, and more people having reasons to come and work or spend their leisure time here. That’s what we’re planning to deliver in the next 10 years.
Q: Has Honda been a catalyst for unifying different agencies to shape the town’s future?
A: We certainly all came together very quickly. Whether it was Honda, the government, the local enterprise partnership or employer bodies, like the motor manufacturing society, everybody involved came around the table.
The first priority was to look after the people who were working at Honda and making sure that they had something to go on to, whether that’s early retirement, other jobs elsewhere in motor manufacturing or setting up their own businesses.
That programme is still in place, and we’re working with them to make sure that as many of the people as possible have something to go on to after leaving Honda in July.
Q: Some local residents are concerned that new developments are happening too slowly. How would you respond to that?
A: Things take time — from the idea to consulting with people, to developing the business case, to making the bid to the government for the funding, to receiving it, to appointing the contractor and then spending it.
I understand people’s frustrations. They want it a lot quicker, and I do as well. But it is public money — it’s got to be accounted for and spent in the right way. I’d reassure people that there is a grand plan here.
Skills are absolutely crucial to the future too. In the past 10 years we’ve attracted a university technical college, with £10m worth of investment from the government, to encourage young people into engineering and technology. We’ve now got the Institute of Technology, that’s opening very soon over at the North Star [college campus], providing degree-level qualifications — levels four, five and six — and being tied into the needs of local businesses.
It’s important to me that we don’t just bring in people with expertise from outside. We also need to grow our own.
Q: Are you concerned about logistics replacing Honda’s manufacturing jobs?
A: We need to remember that logistics is not just about people walking down an aisle and picking stuff off the shelf. It’s a lot more technical than that, and you need highly skilled people to run these centres.
Having said that, I don’t want Swindon to become a town full of just logistics hubs. We want the Honda site to develop into a mixed economy. There is a role for logistics because Swindon is a great location, but we want to attract some high value manufacturing and high-skilled jobs.
We’re already seeing huge interest in the Swindon economy. Honda leaving is the start of a new beginning. We welcome any new businesses that want to come and relocate here.
David Renard has been the leader of Swindon Council since 2013 and is a board member of Localis, a think tank, and the Swindon and Wiltshire local enterprise partnership.