Back to the Future at Longbridge


“Back to the Future” was the theme of the first ever Light Festival at Longbridge on Saturday. Hopefully, it will be the first of many. And “Back to the Future” pretty much summed up the theme of my whole weekend.

First, the “Back” bit. On Thursday the news came through that the Pensions Regulator had secured a contribution of £8m from the assets of a company called MGR Capital to help ensure the solvency of the pension scheme for former MG Rover Group senior staff. In itself that was good news. Senior staff lost their jobs at MG Rover when the company went bust in 2005 just as other employees lost theirs. By getting money from the assets of another former MGR company, the Regulator was able to ensure both that the pensioners concerned would not only get a higher percentage of their entitlement than would otherwise have been be the case, and that this would be financed from the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) – the public “insurance” that the last Labour Government set up to protect employees of firms whose pension funds go under.

MGR Capital was a company set up in partnership with a bank by the Phoenix 4 who ran MG Rover between 2000 and 2005. As it was formally outside the Phoenix Group of MGR-related companies, however, MGR Capital’s assets were not generally subject to creditors claims in the way other Phoenix companies were. The result? The good news was that some money could be secured towards the pensions of 95 senior staff. The other news, however, is that after the bank has taken its cut, some or all of the Phoenix 4, together with their former MGR Chief Executive, are in line to personally receive several million pounds more to add to the millions they had already taken from their Phoenix companies before MGR collapsed.

These were, of course, the same people who promised all those years ago that a trust fund would be established to help look after employees who lost their jobs with the collapse of MGR. As is now well known, the fund was duly established, but virtually no real money was ever put into it by the Phoenix 4.

So part of the “looking back” bit of this weekend was to remind the Phoenix 4 that while the years may pass, their moral responsibility remains – to the employees who lost their jobs as the Phoenix 4 made their personal fortunes. That means the Phoenix 4 should pass on to those employees whatever they stand to make from MGR Capital. On past form there is little hope that they will do so. But there will never come a time that Longbridge will allow them to forget what they owe to their employees and to our community.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

By their own actions, Phoenix 4 have carved themselves a dishonourable place in the history of Longbridge, but there is so much more to celebrate as we look back on the heritage of a place that for a hundred years symbolised the defining industry of the 20th century. And what better way to celebrate that heritage than to the build a new future for Longbridge and the surrounding area?

That is where this weekend’s Light Festival was so powerful. Thousands of local people came to walk amongst the illuminated displays and artworks that lit up Longbridge’s new park and its old tunnels; to view the window displays in the shops, cafés and bars of the new town centre; and to join in activities put on in the futuristic Bournville College “spaceship” that now dominates the local skyline. All of the displays in their own ways celebrated the great days car making at Longbridge, And all of them looked to a new future. Because, as one display put it, “it was never about the cars; it was about the people”.

Artistically, the Festival was impressive and a real credit to Claire Farrell, Werk and everyone who has brought the Longbridge Public Art Project to life. But this is emphatically not “just” an arts project. It is about pathways to a new future for the area in practice, not simply in somebody’s dreams. On Friday, just before the Light Festival, Longbridge hosted an international conference held at Bournville College looking at at how Lyon has used its own “festival of lights” to bring jobs and opportunities to the City. The conference also heard real life examples of how technology & entrepreneurship can today translate artistic creativity into economic success – from road lighting design in the Netherlands to pollution control in China. And the conference looked at South West Birmingham itself. It looked at how we can use our own Longbridge heritage to put ourselves at the centre of innovation once again. It looked at the importance of making sure that local people are at the centre of shaping a new future for our area. And it be again to look at how we can encourage local young people to have the confidence to aspire, and to develop the skills they will need to turn those aspirations into reality.

“Will I be missed?” was the illuminated message on Longbridge railway station during the Light Festival. It could have been the question Longbridge past was asking Longbridge future. My answer is yes – you will always be missed. But if we can use the heritage you have left us to foster new creativity and create new opportunities, you will be always be with us.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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