Britain will never create a homegrown electric car industry
America has the entrepreneurial nous and vision of Elon Musk, as well as the financial and industrial might of Ford. With backing from Warren Buffett, China’s BYD is on the cusp of overtaking Tesla.
Volkswagen has set aside more than $100bn (£83bn) to spend on electric cars, and is planning to create a separate battery manufacturing company entirely from scratch.
In the UK, Britain’s electric dreams are being spearheaded by Lord Botham, who I am willing to bet knows considerably less about clean car technology than he does about the dark art of swing bowling.
And yet, “Beefy” Botham, as he was affectionately known during his cricketing days, has apparently been pivotal in stitching together the latest “rescue deal” for collapsed UK “gigafactory” start-up Britishvolt.
True, the legendary cricketer is the British Government’s trade envoy for Australia these days (comforting to anyone suffering from imposter syndrome, one would imagine). The preferred bidder, Recharge Industries, is sort-of Australian, so Botham’s involvement isn’t entirely spurious – but it is still laughable that Britain’s hopes of becoming a “global hub” for electric vehicles have come to this.
Even now, for all the headlines about how Britishvolt is about to be miraculously revived after imploding predictably last month, there is little of substance to suggest this is likely to be the case.
It’s not just because of Botham’s role – Britishvolt always looked like a long shot, from the moment its top bosses turned up in Northumberland and managed to convince a lot of important people that it had the know-how to build a vast, cutting-edge battery plant on the site of a decommissioned coal-fired power station near Blyth, despite possessing little more than a Powerpoint presentation and planning permission.
Kwasi Kwarteng fell for the sales pitch – the plant would help the UK “fully capture the benefits of a booming electric vehicle market”, the then business secretary claimed. Boris Johnson swallowed it too - “fantastic news” for “our Green Industrial Revolution”, declared our prime minister of the time.
There was also a pledge of government investment – £100m from the Automotive Transformation Fund, a state scheme set up to try and entice battery-makers to these shores to fuel a home-grown electric car. Yet Britishvolt had no working technology, little in the way of assets, insecure funding and perhaps most crucially, not a single paying customer.
Fittingly, details of Recharge’s bid are almost as vague. Backed by Scale Facilitation, a New York-based investment firm, its green credentials don’t sound that much different to Britishvolt’s. It, too, is a start-up with plans to build a battery factory – in Geelong, a former car manufacturing hub in Australia – but, like Britishvolt, that’s all they are.
And, also like Britishvolt, it isn’t allowing an apparent lack of substance to stand in the way of ambition. David Collard, the former accountant behind Scale Facilitation, has pledged to build the Geelong facility, at the same time as reviving Britishvolt’s plans for Blyth, and helping to forge closer advanced manufacturing ties between the UK and Australia for good measure.
It would make far more sense to scrap the entire Britishvolt project. That a business valued at £700m only 12 months ago is expected to be sold for less than £10m when some of the biggest carmakers in the world are pumping tens of billions of pounds into new electric car technology sums up Britain’s efforts.
This country is light years behind the rest of the world and without a battery factory building programme, it can give up any hope of catching up. China has hundreds of gigafactories in the pipeline; continental Europe is on course to have 27 gigafactories by the end of the decade, a sixfold increase on forecasts made just three years ago. Similar numbers are planned in the US.
Industry executives think eight more are needed to maintain current UK car production of 1.5m vehicles a year if all models become electric, while the Faraday Institution estimates it could be as many as 10. So far, we have succeeded in building one – next to Nissan’s sprawling Sunderland plant – and tellingly it is Chinese-owned.
We should admit defeat, give up on our efforts to nurture a plucky national underdog and instead focus on luring established global players to do the work for us. The obvious candidate is Musk. Not only is the Tesla tycoon the number one expert, he is also looking to establish a dozen more such plants in the coming years. The Government should surrender any pretense of wanting to compete if it fails to persuade him to build at least one of them here.
In Germany, the state of Brandenburg allowed Tesla to fell 170 hectares of forest to make way for the world’s second largest lithium ion battery plant after it promised to replace every single tree that was cut down with three new saplings.
Ministers should pull out all the stops here with tax breaks, guarantees of smooth trade with the European market, and the tearing down of red tape. Similar efforts should be made to ensure BMW doesn’t follow through with threats to move production of the all-electric Mini to China, or that Jaguar Land Rover’s owner Tata Motors doesn’t shift electric vehicle production to Slovakia, as it is reportedly considering.
Foreign partners will be essential. Britain is deluded to think it has any chance of creating a competitive homegrown electric car industry.