Campaign to keep Lotus in Norfolk

Today the Eastern Daily Press is again joining forces with our MPs to pressure the government to do all it can to ensure the future of Lotus in Norfolk.

In a rare interview yesterday, the chief executive of Lotus, Dany Bahar, told the EDP it would make no sense to take the firm out of Norfolk, but he could give no guarantee it would not happen.

Since Proton, the car manufacturer's mother company, was bought by the conglomerate DRB-Hicom, there has been uncertainty over the new owner's intentions, with speculation rife that Lotus may be sold to a firm that winds up operations in Norfolk.

Over the next few weeks, Lotus and the 1,200 workers at its Hethel factory will have to wait nervously while executives thousands of miles away take crucial decisions about the future of the county.

But in a call to action today, the EDP is teaming up with Norfolk MPs to push the British government to do all it can to ensure the iconic British car maker remains here.

Action in Westminster is being led by South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon in whose constituency Lotus is based.

He has already sent a detailed letter to prime minister David Cameron, his chief political fixer Ed Lewellyn and the most powerful civil servant in the land, cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.

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In it he writes: 'I would ask you to put all possible pressure on the Malaysian government to ensure that DRB-Hicom only permits the sale of Group Lotus to a bidder who will provide credible guarantees for the future of the business as an ongoing concern in Norfolk.'

Speaking to the EDP shortly before he raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons yesterday, the MP outlined just how important it was for the government to intervene.

He said: 'The British government can make a serious and valuable contribution by asking the Malaysian government to make sure the owners of Proton give due consideration to bids that would see Lotus remain in Norfolk.

'I would be sceptical of the assurance of a Chinese buyer to that end, because the interests for them are different. But there are well capitalised buyers out there who are concerned with keeping operations in the county.'

He added: 'We have to make sure the government knows and is working towards a potential way through this. If 1,200 jobs go, the government will have to pick up the pieces, so it's better to stop that happening in the first place.'

After being questioned by Mr Bacon in Parliament, the prime minister confirmed he had discussed Lotus with his Malaysian counterpart and the firm's new owners.

He said: 'Lotus makes a key contribution to the UK automotive sector. The sector is doing well and I want to see Lotus succeed and have a secure future. We are in contact with the company, monitoring the situation very closely and ensuring that it knows about the Regional Growth Fund money that is available.'

Three Norfolk MPs have government posts particularly well placed to help: Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham, business minister Norman Lamb and Treasury minister Chloe Smith. North West Norfolk MP Mr Bellingham said it would be an 'absolute tragedy' if Lotus were to close its Hethel factory.

He said: 'As a county, the MPs, the local authorities, everyone, we've now got to work together to make every conceivable effort to keep it here. I'm happy to use my Foreign Office position as a minister responsible for links with business to do anything I can to help.

'If that means talking to other governments and overseas agencies, then that is what I'll do. I'll be working closely with Richard and making it clear he will have every assistance I can offer.'

Mr Bellingham claimed that since the recent visit of Mr Cameron to Malaysia, relations with the South East Asian country had been 'restored' and that there would be an 'open door for a discussion' over Lotus.

In Norfolk today, regional business and council leaders will discuss the situation at a meeting of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Meanwhile, North Norfolk MP Mr Lamb holds a post at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and has said he will also apply pressure to keep Lotus in Britain.

Last October, BIS granted the firm �10m from its Regional Growth Fund (RGF) to help it implement a five-year expansion plan and create 1,000 jobs. Mr Lamb suggested the money could be seen as a sweetener for any buyer that wanted to keep Lotus in the UK.

He explained: 'The government remains ready to implement the grant if the conditions are met and the development programme which it was designed to support is committed to.

'The government has seen the value in that development plan; the potential it has for jobs and growth. Until uncertainty over ownership is resolved, the money will be held. If the firm is packed up and sent to China then it does not apply.'

He added: 'I'm very keen to work with all of the MPs, employee representatives, councils and the LEP to support the EDP's campaign and do all we can to keep Lotus and the jobs that go with it in Norfolk.'

The MP said there is a team of civil servants in BIS that swing into action to prevent job losses when a large number are under threat, adding that his department had already been in regular contact with Lotus.

But as the department that oversees all government spending, whether in grants for business or in welfare for unemployed workers, HM Treasury is also of critical importance.

Norwich North MP and economic secretary to the treasury Ms Smith said: 'As soon as I had heard the details of the emerging situation, I made sure the Treasury was aware of it. It's very important we keep the government in close contact as to what is going on.

'In terms of the MPs it's vital we do all we can. We will all be lobbying the government to make sure they understand the importance of the situation and to ensure that Lotus and the company which owns them understands how valuable the firm is and that it is loved and wanted.'