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Ideas & Observations

Keeping the electric dream alive

Back in my college days, I remember being introduced to pathetic fallacy.

We were reading a Gothic horror novel, and our literature tutor was trying to wrestle us from our fascination with the macabre, using the device’s affixing of human emotions to the weather to locate the book’s multiple meanings.

I found myself drifting back to that classroom recently, when electric vehicle battery firm Britishvolt’s bid to build a 3000-job, multi-billion-pound factory in Cambois, the small Northumberland seaside village, lost a degree of its charge.

Early last year, we featured Peter Rolton, the company’s executive chairman, who spoke of the business’ excitement at bringing a manufacturing plant, capable of making hundreds of thousands of power packs every year and supporting 5000 supply chain posts, to the sleepy former colliery enclave.

As he did, a welcoming sun shone down, its friendly heat burning away clouds to leave an open sky.

Earlier this year, however, the scene wasn’t so bright.

On another trip to Cambois, which skirts the North Sea in a thin strip that ends at the mouth of the River Wansbeck, a sullen, suspicious mist had rolled in off the water.

Set against the backdrop of increasing speculation about Britishvolt’s financial future, it was like the Gods had added their own slice of melancholy.

Neat literature references aside, what is happening with Britishvolt is gravely serious, for the North East and the country as a whole.

Despite its infancy – the company was only formed in late 2019 – it quickly became a flagbearer for sustainable change.

A poster firm for a fresh renewable chapter, it attracted the gaze, and cash support, of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who committed £100 million to the cause as part of his ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

The energy, though, has dipped.

Having seen a request for a Westminster funding advance refused, Britishvolt, which says it has struggled against “challenging external factors”, was forced to go back to the market, amid reports of impending administration.

Bosses say they have since secured “necessary near-term investment…to bridge over the coming weeks to a more secure funding position for the future”, and that they have “received promising approaches from several more international investors in the past few days”.

Beyond the positive PR, though, lies an incredibly concerning story, not just for the near 300 already on Britishvolt’s books, but the North East’s wider employment landscape and its place in the national energy mix.

Staff have taken a month’s pay cut to spread its capital further, and its cash injection is understood to cover only a matter of weeks.

In an update to investors a few days ago, Britishvolt remained bullish, championing the impact of its employment plans on a village whose mining headstock long made its final turn, and communities farther afield too, while acknowledging its commitment to delivering a project of “huge strategic importance to the country’s standing on the global battery stage”.

But the sombre clouds haven’t fully lifted, and we must hope its financial backing powers up a new lease of life, rather than providing a stay of execution.

Words by Steven Hugill, editor of North East Times – views his own.