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UK GOVERNMENT DOUBLES EV INFRASTRUCTURE FUND

The Department for Transport has announced that it will devote £10 million to improving the UK’s electric vehicle infrastructure in 2021.

It is the second time the government has doubled its EV infrastructure funding allowance. Last August, £2.5 million was allocated to the installation of EV charging points in residential areas, matching an earlier £2.5 million pledge made in 2017.

The latest investment will go towards installing an additional 3600 charge points in residential areas across the country, and could fund the development of a new publicly accessible charging point monitoring platform, which will show whether individual facilities are in use or out of order. 

The DfT says such a system “could then be used by developers and incorporated into sat navs and route mapping apps”. 

The government claims to have supported the installation of more than 24,000 public charging points, including 2400 rapid chargers, as part of its ‘Road to Zero’ low-emission strategy.

The latest investment, however, follows a wave of criticism from automotive industry leaders and experts, directed at the slow roll-out of EV infrastructure in the UK. 

Last week, Transport Minister George Freeman claimed the only way the government would meet its goal of stopping sales of combustion-fuelled cars by 2040 would be through investment in infrastructure and promotion of electric vehicles. 

He said: “By 2024, I’d like to more than double the number of rapid charge points to over 5000. That would give even more people across the country the chance to drive electric vehicles – and we need to think about a balance between following where the uptake [of electric cars] is and reassuring tomorrow’s purchasers that we’re building for them.”

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SCOTTISH DEALERSHIP SALE SAVES 101 JOBS

Some 101 jobs in Scotland have been saved as a buyer has been found for the remaining parts of the Leven Car Company (LCC) dealer group, which entered administration earlier this month. 

Glasgow-based administrators Leonard Curtis Business and Recovery has announced that dealer group Grange Motors has acquired the Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin dealerships in Edinburgh, while Vertu Motors takes on LCC’s remaining Kia, Suzuki and Mitsubishi dealerships as part of the expansion of the Macklin Motors brand in Scotland. 

The successful sale of the remaining LCC franchises follows the closure last week of the firm’s Kia and Suzuki dealerships in Selkirk, which left 23 workers redundant.

Joint Administrator, Stuart Robb, said: “We are pleased to confirm the sale of the remaining parts of Leven Cars Group. Being able to secure a sale and save so many jobs in such a short timescale is testament to everyone involved, in particular the employees who have been extremely patient and understanding throughout the sale process. 

 “We would like to thank them for their support over the past two weeks and wish them every success in their new roles.”

Robert Forrester, Chief Executive of Vertu Motors, expressed a desire to restart operations at the rescued dealerships as soon as possible.

In a tweet posted on Monday 20 January, he said: “We have completed the deal to buy Edinburgh Kia, Suzuki and Mitsubishi from the administrators of Leven Motor Co. This expands Macklin Motors and adds three new franchises! Will take us a few days to get the business back up and running but high hopes!” 

Forrester later told the Edinburgh News that Vertu Motors plans to build a new facility in Newbridge, a village bordering Edinburgh, on land it acquired three years ago. 

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A HOT BED OF MODERN SLAVERY

The very fact that, in June 2019, there were more than 1400 active investigations into alleged instances of forced labour across the UK, compared with just 188 in November 2016, is indicative of just how rampant the problem has become recently.

The government’s Annual Modern Slavery Report, published in October, highlights the advanced nature of people trafficking gangs, and the heavy response it’s planning as a means of tackling the ‘hidden crime’. The four Ps – pursue, prevent, protect and prepare – lay at the foundation of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s anti-exploitation masterplan, which is designed to bring an end to the ruthless mistreatment of the up-to-13,000 estimated victims across the UK.

It’s not all taking place backstage, either. Hand car wash users across the country are urged to keep an eye out for timid workers, signs of on-site habitation and improper safety equipment in the search for human trafficking gangs. A lack of regulation in the sector makes it all too easy for victims to go under the radar, and the nature of the work means they’re often subjected to freezing temperatures and rain on a day-to-day basis.

WAKE-UP CALL

The phenomenon was brought to public attention by the tragic death, in 2015, of East London car wash worker Sandy Laurentiu-Sava. The Romanian national was living in squalid conditions above the cheerily named Bubbles car wash in Bethnal Green, and was fatally electrocuted when the flat’s crudely mounted power shower short-circuited. His employer and landlord, Shaip Nimani, was jailed for four years. In the wake of the incident, Sava’s brother said: “It appears to me that the employment laws and rules and regulations in the UK are not strong enough, and that more needs to be done to protect the welfare and wellbeing of foreign nationals, to stop incidents like this happening again.” Some will argue, however, that the recent tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the back of a lorry in Essex, suggests that not enough is being done.

Charity group Unseen UK aims to put a stop to such incidents, with Head of Communications Tabitha Ross calling it ‘literally a matter of life and death’, in light of the organisation’s Q2 2019 report recording a nine percent increase in labour exploitation compared to the previous three-month period. Its publicly accessible Modern Slavery Helpine has helped to identify 15,000 victims of modern slavery since it was launched in 2016, becoming one of the country’s most vital weapons in the war against labour exploitation, but now faces imminent closure.

Ross says the charity is working to save the threatened resource, and is halfway to its £800,000 fundraising target, with resources in place to ensure continued operation into 2020. She notes, however, that now is ‘a difficult time for helplines’ in general, and that many ‘up and down the country are at risk of closure’. The helpline’s closure would significantly hinder the consumer’s ability to report suspicious activity at car washes, and could open the door for traffickers to set up new car washes, and import more labourers to work at them.

KNOCK-ON EFFECT

Unfortunately, says Brian Madderson, Chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), ‘none of our enforcers seem interested in stopping it,’ and that illicit activity of this nature has found its way into ‘almost every corner of the British Isles’. The PRA represents 70 percent of UK forecourts, and notes a significant downturn in automated car wash trade over the past ten years – a result, so it claims, of the activities of illicit traders. Other countries, Madderson says, ‘are astonished to find that we have up to 20,000 hand car washes across the UK’, where they have none. Aggravating the issue, he says, is the fact that all the equipment and chemicals necessary to running a hand car wash are available from most builders merchants with no need to show any licence or certification.

In 2018, compelled by the government’s inactivity, the Church of England’s anti-slavery arm, the Clewer Initiative, launched a free-to-use ‘Safe Car Wash’ smartphone app, which supplies data from user reports to the National Crime Agency and Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. Any car wash user concerned about employees’ working conditions can answer a series of questions before contacting the Modern Slavery Helpline. The organisation sees employment at a hand car wash as a ‘gateway’ to exploitation for the vulnerable, noting that it’s often an early port of call for people brought from overseas to the UK for work.

Madderson agrees, remarking that, though the hours are long and the conditions far from ideal, car washing ‘requires zero skill’ and brings in at least ‘some money’. For the desperate – and quite often undocumented – worker, it’s the most efficient way of securing a bed and clothing. But, warns The Clewer Initiative, ‘car washes pop up and down without much warning, and may also be cutting corners in other areas’.

ACTION PLAN

The organisation has received more than 2000 reports of suspicious activity since its app launched, helping to identify sites where workers were at risk of abuse. The app’s website, however, notes: “The findings show 126 calls to the Modern Slavery Helpline were made through the app. This is disappointing, as it is only 18% of those who were asked to call.” Madderson, having worked with the app development team, hopes that ‘significant upgrades’ being made to the app will encourage more users to take action. One function being rolled out will offer the location of a nearby, vetted hand car wash, which has been designed to drive business away from trafficking gangs.

Lack of official regulation has put the problem into the hands of consumers and struggling charities, and is taking money away from the regulated car wash sector. It remains to be seen if Anti-Slavery Commissioner Sara Thornton’s bold two-year strategy will have an effect, so for now it’s a case of being on the lookout for wrongdoing, and reporting it where possible.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

– Cash: If a car wash won’t accept a card or issue a receipt, it could indicate financial misconduct, and suggest staff are not being paid properly.

– Lodging: Look out for signs that workers are living on site, or arriving at the same time every morning, as insufficient accommodation is often provided by trafficking gangs.

– Equipment: As the nights draw in and temperatures drop, look for workers with bare hands, soggy trainers and short-sleeved tops.

– Aggression: Car wash bosses could intimidate customers to prevent closer inspection into their practices. Watch for vicious dogs and potential weapons.

– Nervousness: A victim of labour abuse will probably be unwilling to look customers in the eye or handle money, and might have very poor English.

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THE LEGAL PITFALLS OF DISCOUNT MARKETING

Discounts aren’t just for the high street – but should be treated with care

In early 2019 the owner of jeweller H Samuel was fined for providing misleading pricing information online. The case highlights what retailers can do when it comes to posting prices and promotions in light of a new national and international drive towards the enforcement of consumer protection laws.

Torfaen County Borough Council’s trading standards team pursued a prosecution over the ‘misleading pricing’ of a range of diamond rings on the H Samuel website. The charges related to the practice of using reference price promotions, where retailers show consumers a higher price at which the item has been offered for sale.

H Samuel’s website had failed to inform consumers that items had previously been offered at lower ‘intervening’ prices, so they were unaware whether they were receiving a genuine bargain. Signet Trading, the owner of H Samuel, cooperated with the council’s investigation and pleaded guilty to what the judge accepted were system failings as opposed to deliberate attempts to mislead customers. Whilst credit was given for that, H Samuel was fined £60,000 in respect of the sale of rings (which had brought in £6,500) and was ordered to pay the council’s costs of £13,382.

It’s clear from this case that retailers must be very careful with reference pricing not to mislead customers into thinking they are getting a good deal.

THE LAW

The Consumer Protection Regulations prohibit businesses from engaging in unfair commercial practices such as giving false or misleading information or exerting undue pressure on consumers. You should take time to read the entire 31-item schedule.

Crucially, consumers are not only people who actually buy from a business – they also include prospective customers, so anyone who saw the promotion in an advert or the shop window could complain.

The consumer rules require businesses to be proactive. They impose a duty to disclose material information that a consumer needs to make an informed decision. A common trap for the unwary is that liability for misleading by omission cannot be avoided if the retailer does not know what it should know and has taken no reasonable steps to find out.

If a retailer faces prosecution, it may be able to raise a defence that the offence was committed because of a mistake or cause outside its control; but only if all reasonable precautions were taken to try to avoid the offence.

However, there is no defence if a retailer knowingly or recklessly allows its employees’ conduct to fall below honest and professionally diligent standards at any point.

PRACTICAL STEPS

There are, however, some practical steps that retailers can take to avoid consumer protection offences. Following these should also provide retailers with evidence to support a due diligence defence if any complaint, investigation or prosecution is brought.

Firstly, it’s important to provide training to all staff involved and retain evidence of that training.

Next, taking care that all information presented to customers (potential and actual) is accurate, fair, not deceptive or misleading. Having safeguards in place as to the accuracy and security of all such information is key. Policies, as in any other part of a business, are essential. It’ll help a retailer if it maintains a comprehensive audit trail of all these efforts.

THE FUTURE

Earlier this year, the European Commission called for online shopping websites to give customers clearer information about pricing and discounts after finding that some 60 percent of websites showed irregularities regarding compliance with consumer protection laws. This was particularly so in relation to the advertisement of pricing promotions, and the failure of traders to provide an easily accessible link to the ‘online dispute resolution’ platform which is required under law.

This area is definitely one to watch and retailers should note that this new focus on compliance with consumer protection laws is likely to result in increased scrutiny at a local, national and even international level, of their online and marketing practices.

Gwendoline Davies is a Partner in the Retail Group at Walker Morris LLP

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REBOOT FOR ROTHERHAM RETAIL

There’s a new broom sweeping through Rotherham retail outlet Leisureways – both literally and metaphorically – as new owner David Clarke is having a clearout.

When we arrived to have a look around, a large stock cleanse was in its final stages. Already, lots of old references had been packed up and sent back to suppliers. As we toured the stockroom, which was busy undergoing a complete reprofile, Clarke said: “One rep who came in today said: ‘David, the value of this stock is exactly nothing but as a gesture of goodwill we’ll give you £250.’”

“Everyone who has been here has seen what is potentially a very good customer,” he added, noting that so far he’d had nothing but support and goodwill from the various suppliers who have presumably sensed that the 60 year old family business has been given a rare opportunity for growth.

Previously a member of the A1 Motor Stores group, the shop is now part of UAN, along with the rest of David Clarke’s Chesterfield-based Autosupplies Group. However, he has been careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, acknowledging that local affection for certain brands is very strong. “I’ve been learning here as well” he said.

READ: AUTOSUPPLIES COMPLETES LEISUREWAYS ACQUISITION

“I was just about to get rid of Millers Oils when the lad rang up with £700 worth of orders. He came and saw me in Chesterfield where I told him that I owed him an apology for nearly booting his stock out! I’ve done a U-turn and now you’ll see a lot of Millers’ stock in here,” Clarke declared.

LONG ROOTS

As with many family businesses, Leisureways in Rotherham can trace its roots through multiple businesses operating under different names and over various sites across the decades. Originally called Rotherham Rebore, the business was later expanded to offer car parts for the trade and the DIY motorist, as well as a range of camping and sporting goods (hence the name Leisureways).

As legend has it, a very young Seb Coe is said to have bought his first pair of trainers at Leisureways, and to have been so impressed with the service that he agreed to open a bright and airy new showroom for the firm shortly after breaking the world 800m record in 1981.

The current site was developed from an old BT building in the 1990s and sits on a plot we estimate to be around 40,000 sq ft, though various tennant businesses, including a garage, a takeaway and a therapy room, are based on the same site.

Through all the changes, the Hinchcliffe family has remained an integral part of the operation. Brothers Ron and Trevor Hinchcliffe have been at the helm for decades, with various family members helping them along the way. So it’s only natural that when the time came for them to retire and sell up, they were keen for the business to continue running, rather than see the site being snapped up by a developer.

CLEAN SWEEP

Which is where David Clarke, owner of Chesterfield-based Autosupplies Group came in. In point of fact he had been working behind the scenes with the Hinchcliffes for over a year before the deeds were finally exchanged. Even on the day of our visit, which was a week or so after the deal had been completed, both Hinchcliffe brothers were on site to assist with the handover.

But just because there is bonhomie with the previous management doesn’t mean it’s business as usual at the retailer. As someone who has spent his working life selling hard parts and body shop consumables to the trade, Clarke saw little future in trying to sell fringe products like running shoes and squash racquets to the public. Instead, his plan is to drastically improve the firm’s trade factor proposition.

“At the moment, turnover is around 90 percent retail and ten percent trade,” he said. “In 18 months’ time I expect those numbers to be turned around.” That doesn’t mean that the firm is going to reduce its retail space; the recent addition of several new stock lines and the replacement of the sports gear with displays of Bosch goods and Sealey tools suggests the opposite is true.

Rather, a radical overhaul of the firm’s offering to garages is currently underway. Once new racking is installed (some of which was being brought in as we spoke) and filled with new stock, the push to all garages in the triangle between Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley can begin. A room currently used as a sort of computer graveyard has been earmarked as a dedicated call centre and Clarke’s project manager Allan Dannatt is on site to help get things running smoothly. The number of vans operating out of the branch has already been increased from one to three, and when we mention that a building of the size could run, say 15 vans, Clarke said without hesitation: “Yes, I think that’s about right.”

The site will go some way to helping Autosupplies achieve its goal of covering South Yorkshire, but no-one is saying it will be easy. ECP are highly active in this region, as is rival independent chain Bullseye.

Still, a combination of a known and trusted local brand mixed with Clarke’s shrewd business sense and desire to succeed? We wouldn’t bet against them.

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HELLA RECORDS SHARP SALES DROP IN 2019

Component firm Hella has released its financial figures for the first half of the financial year, revealing a significant drop in sales and earnings. 

From 1 June to 30 November 2019, Hella recorded a decline of 3.2 percent in currency and portfolio sales, and 6.7 percent in reported consolidated sales – a drop it attributes to the sale of its wholesale arm in 2018.

The sales shortfall resulted in a loss of €39 million (£33 million) year-on-year, with pre-tax earnings posted at €257 million (£220 million). Hella said: “This substantial reduction is largely due to extraordinary income booked in the prior year from the sale of the wholesale business.” 

READ: NEIL GRANT IS NEW MD AT HELLA

Another factor was a global reduction in new vehicle output. Hella sold 1.6 percent less products to vehicle manufacturers compared with the same period in 2019, but notes that it still “managed to outperform the broader market primarily based on strong demand for electronic products, particularly in energy management and sensors, and on strong business in the American market”.

The firm’s aftermarket division also suffered last year, with weakened demand in South West Europe and the Middle East contributing to a €13 million drop in reported sales. Sales to workshops were down as well, although the company considers this a result of especially strong sales in 2018, when a wave of new regulation was introduced.

Profitablity in the aftermarket was, however, improved, with cost optimisation strategies bringing pre-taxearnings up to €29 million from 2018’s €25 million. The operating profit margin was 9 percent, compared to 7.6 percent the year before.

READ: MAHLE AFTERMARKET ACQUIRES BEHR HELLA SERVICE

Commenting on the report, Hella CEO Dr Rolf Breidenbach predicted that recovery will be a long process. “The market environment remains very challenging. A strong, sustained recovery is not likely to emerge in 2020,” he said.

“However, we are still reaffirming our annual targets. We will vigorously capitalize on the current phase of market weakness to improve our competitiveness and continue investing in innovative solutions for the market trends of electrification and autonomous driving.”

 

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40 JOBS LOST AS TRICO CLOSES PONTYPOOL HUB

Windscreen wiper firm Trico is to close its Pontypool rework and distribution hub, marking the end of a near-100-year presence in the UK.

The closure leaves around 40 people out of a job, with the firm moving central distribution to Puurs in Belgium. General Manager for Trico Group Europe Eduardo Sanz said: “This was, of course, not an easy decision; however, we have to make strategic plans that are in the best interests of our

Skewfields site is now empty

customers and the future growth and sustainability of our business.”

READ: BREXIT: RHINO PRODUCTS OPENS EUROPEAN DISTRIBUTION CENTRE

He added that moving to Belgium will ‘help to centralise’ distribution, and thanked the firm’s Pontypool workers for ‘their fantastic service’.

The Welsh site opened as a production facility in 1992, but has been used mainly for packing and rework for European products since 2006, when Trico downscaled its Wales operations as part of a cost-cutting initiative.

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LEVEN CARS GROUP CALLS IN THE ADMINISTRATORS

Edinburgh-based dealership Leven Cars has gone bust following two years of ‘difficult trading conditions’.

Leven Cars endured ‘difficult trading conditions’

Stuart Robb and Michelle Elliot – of Leonard Curtis – were appointed Joint Administrators of Leven Cars Group Limited  on Tuesday 7th January.

The company which was incorporated in January 2014, has multiple car dealerships based in Edinburgh and Selkirk, including Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Lotus, Kia, Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Caterham.

The Company, which employs 139 staff across its four dealerships, has ceased trading.  At this stage, none of the Company’s employees have been made redundant whilst the Administrators assess the Company’s financial position and explore the possibility of finding a buyer for all or parts of the business.

The Company will continue to maintain a presence at the Company’s dealerships for a short period of time to ensure that any customer queries can be addressed.

Joint Administrator, Stuart Robb commented: “We are currently assessing the Company’s financial position with a view to seeking a buyer for all or parts of the business.  This is a unique opportunity to acquire a business with a strong reputation, excellent customer base, and a highly knowledgeable and loyal workforce.”

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ROMAC ACQUIRED BY SUTTON AUTO FACTORS

Romac branches feature traditional shop fronts

Parts distributor Sutton Auto Factors has acquired the four-branch Romac chain. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

The four Romac stores in Heanor, Ripley, Spondon and Mickleover will continue, with no impact to the existing staff or customers, according to the new owner.

“Customers can expect to see the same faces, levels of service and customer care along with added value in choice, availability, quality and affordability”, says Andrew Wells, SAF General Manager. “We are delighted to welcome Romac into Sutton Auto Factors as we aim to achieve our goal of growth through offering the best available parts at the most competitive price.”

 The four Romac branches are traditional customer facing shop fronts. They join the existing network of SAF stores in Ilkeston, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Long Eaton, Bulwell, Colwick, Bingham and Ollerton.

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LKQ CORP. TO SELL TWO MOTOR FACTOR CHAINS

Chicago-based LKQ Corporation has announced the decision to sell two Czech wholesale automotive parts distributors to Swiss Automotive Group AG. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

In May 2018, the European Commission cleared LKQ’s acquisition of Stahlgruber GmbH, with the exception of Stahlgruber’s two wholesale businesses in the Czech Republic, which were referred for review to the Czech Competition Authority. Earlier this year, the Czech Competition Authority approved LKQ’s acquisition of the two Czech distributors, subject to certain divestiture conditions. LKQ subsequently decided to sell the entire equity interests of the two businesses. LKQ Europe will continue to operate its existing Auto Kelly a.s. and ELIT s.r.o. businesses in the Czech Republic.

Dominick Zarcone, President and Chief Executive Officer of LKQ, stated, “We appreciate the efforts of local management to build a successful business in the Czech Republic, and we are proud that we have found an outstanding new owner for it.”

LKQ expects to complete the sale in early 2020, subject to required regulatory approvals.

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