Sunderland is a city which has seen substantial changes to its heavy industry. An area which was once dominated by ship building, coal mining and glass production now has, for the last 35 years, had an altogether different manufacturer on its doorstep. Nissan began production in the city at a time when, crucially, these traditional industries were being phased out across the region.
Nissan opened their plant in Sunderland in 1986 in a move with was arguably supported by the Conservative Party to bring jobs back to the area after the closure of coal mines and shipyards. The number of jobs in the plant as well as those it supplies indirectly in the surrounding area adds up to more than these traditional industries provided, which goes to show the more devastating impact to employment should the Japanese car manufacturers decide to scale down or ship out of Sunderland.
Ship-building is an integral part of Sunderland’s history. The first ship yard can be traced back to the 14th century and for over 500 years the ‘biggest ship building town in the world’ had 400 individual shipyards up and down the River Wear. At its height ships built in Sunderland were sent all over the world and even towards the end of this great era, in the late 1970’s, over 7000 were employed in the industry. The impact of Sunderland on the national ship-building scene can never be underestimated, with a third of the country’s ships being built on Wearside in the mid nineteenth century. It was a gradual, painful decline throughout the 20th century, but the final blow for the industry was as clinical as it was crippling. In 1978 over 7000 people were employed but as British ship yards failed to compete with the worldwide market the demand for local ships dwindled and the last ship yard on the Wear was closed in December 1988.
Like most of the North East of England, Sunderland was once a thriving coal mining town. Like ship building, it is an industry which was sewn into the landscape for hundreds of years, providing work for generation after generation. Wearmouth Colliery, situated on the north side of the Wear, employed around 1500 workers at any given moment in its 90+ year history. When it closed its doors for good in 1991, over 2000 people lost their jobs. The miners of Wearmouth Colliery were a portion of over 30,000 nationwide who were made unemployed that year as part of the Conservative Party’s colliery closure campaign. The discovery of Natural Gas in the North Sea had rendered coal almost obsolete by the 1990’s, meaning that the end of the industry was in sight.
The industry which arguably still has the biggest presence in the city is glass making. First brought to Sunderland by French craftsmen in the seventh century, it is a profession which, along with ship building, put Sunderland on the map. A permanent monument to this industry is in place with the National Glass Centre, in which visitors can recreate the processes carried out across Sunderland for centuries.
The news that other companies across the UK were opting to move operations abroad in relation to Brexit caused concern with the leave campaign and would have undoubtedly been met with low key chimes of ‘we told you so’ by remain. When Nissan announced that the new model of the X-Trail vehicle will be being constructed in Japan rather than Sunderland it raised questions as to the company’s stance on Brexit. An answer was practically provided on Sunday when the company stated that continued Brexit uncertainty was not helping firms ‘plan for the future’. Despite the confirmation from Nissan that no jobs would be lost at the Sunderland plant.
They are not the only car manufacturer to express concern. Toyota and Vauxhall have also acknowledged that a No-deal Brexit may affect the transportation of their cars from the UK. Of course, this form of Brexit will cause concern, yet the reality of Nissan’s decision to not build the new X-Trail in Europe is more related to the phasing out of Diesel vehicles on the continent. The UK was one of several countries across Europe which has pledged to ban diesel vehicles on its roads by 2040. Building thousands of these cars for a continent in which they will soon be outlawed is uneconomic to say the least, regardless of how much issue shipping may be affected in the event of a New-deal Brexit.
Brexit, particularly one without a deal, will have impact on the UK economy and trade for the first months at least. However, purely the mention of Brexit around the Nissan announcement last week was enough to create some element of concern amongst those affected by the Sunderland plant. It is always going to boil down to politics in Sunderland. The people saw their coalmines closed by a Conservative Party determined to put their money into new energy, regardless of the impact on people’s lives. You can argue with why it was viewed as important to move on from the coal industry, but not with the way the Conservatives closed down mines at will.
If Nissan was ever to move production away from Sunderland, then the city and the surrounding area would be losing a mass employer essentially given to them to soften the blow of losing three major heavy industries in a period of several ruthless years.
Sunderland is a city which has moved on from traditional industries and its people will continue to look back on these with pride. Nissan has and will continue to supply the region as one of its biggest employers, but ultimately if the company does decide to move its plant then there will be significant social and economic issues in the years to come