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Ideas & Observations

Keeping the electric dream alive

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

But then not all stories have a happy ending.

Britishvolt’s arc started brightly enough; the poeticism of transforming an ex-power station coal store into a sprawling renewable battery plant bestowed it instant page-turner status.

But when it came to the heart of the narrative, things melted away.

The business certainly had vision, and it had a site envied by many for its size, port links and national grid connections.

But, crucially, it didn’t have customers (there were memorandum of understandings with Lotus and Aston Martin), and it didn’t have the cash.

And it meant the business – just like when it came to ripping up the old coal yard in readiness for its planned 3000-job factory – ultimately failed to scratch the surface.

Today, at the gates of its proposed development, in the Northumberland pit village of Cambois, a billboard screaming ‘Power On’ – one of the firm’s carefully-crafted PR lines – makes for a harsh, almost mocking, juxtaposition.

The energy has gone, so too has the majority of Britishvolt’s 300-strong workforce, vivacity replaced by a sorrowful lethargy.

For Cambois – which regularly faces into unforgiving North Sea winds – and the wider North East employment market Britishvolt pledged to galvanise, its failure is a painful slap across the cheek.

Like many areas of the North East, the enclave, defined by its mining past, is locked in a semi-permanent search for identity.

Britishvolt provided an escape, a fresh avenue towards a new era of prosperity, which cruelly turned into a cul-de-sac.

Its failure represents an equally bruising episode for the Government.

Having lauded Britishvolt as a ‘pioneer’, in the process committing to a £100 million Automotive Transformation Fund deal (which never transpired), the firm’s administration leaves a number of questions to be answered, not least why Downing Street threw so many eggs into the basket of a company founded in just 2019?

To an extent, its support was obvious.

With the UK woefully short on factories to make the electric batteries needed to offset the end of petrol and diesel sales across the next decade, Britishvolt told a story the Government wanted to hear.

The fact bosses had chosen the North East for its factory, an area inherent to Boris Johnson’s ’levelling-up’ agenda, only added to the lure.

Its demise provides too a reminder of the importance of strong Government and private sector collaboration.

Indeed, as the dust was beginning to settle, Michael Naylor, managing director at global battery materials and technology business EVM – which last year bought Johnson Matthey’s battery materials operation – said it was imperative Westminster and private capital work together “if the UK car industry is to be protected and have a key role in the transition to electric vehicles”.

Now, it should be pointed out at this juncture that Britishvolt’s demise is not the end for greener motoring in the North East.

On the contrary, a Wearside battery factory venture led by Envision AESC and Nissan (the latter having set up a power pack plant in the region a decade ago) promises, say the firms, to create 1000 jobs and many more in the supply chain.

Forming part of a previously-announced £1 billion partnership, bosses say it will make more than 100,000 batteries every year, from a site on International Advanced Manufacturing Park.

But it is just one of the many needed.

Britishvolt was cautioning about such right through to its final hours (the text is still on its website), its president of global operations warning production could head abroad if the country didn’t get its act together.

It still could, of course.

Envision and Nissan’s partnership provides an example of how the green automotive revolution can be fashioned, and, who knows, a buyer could yet emerge to salvage the hopes and dreams conjured by Britishvolt.

But the latter’s episode is nevertheless a warning shot for the UK.

If it serious about creating a new story arc around electric motoring, then it has to put its foot on the accelerator. And quickly.