Opinion: A fresh injection of power
March 5, 2023
With Recharge Industries primed to seal a takeover deal for stricken Britishvolt, a fresh chapter stands ready to be written in the region’s sustainable transport sector. Here, Steven Hugill assesses the fall-out from Britishvolt’s collapse, and how Recharge Industries’ imminent arrival provides great potential to accelerate the North East’s contribution to the green motoring revolution.
The green motoring revolution and Phil Oakey don’t necessarily strike as instant bedfellows.
But when you’ve written enough stories about the great transport transition, and seen enough sub-editors affix an ‘electric dreams’ style headline to your copy, the connection becomes less contrair.
Indeed, even now to put together an article on sustainable travel sets my mind away to the twinkling opening bars and video lip-syncing of Oakey on ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, the Human League frontman’s mid-1980s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder.
And I found myself in familiar territory again a few weeks ago, when Britishvolt, once tipped to dramatically accelerate UK vehicle battery production, ran out of power and spluttered into administration.
This time, though, it was another of the unlikely musical duo’s creations which came to mind – ‘Good-Bye Bad Times’.
The up-tempo, synth-pop number talks of a fresh start and a change of luck.
And it couldn’t be a more apt soundtrack for the decline of Britishvolt or, more specifically, the emergence of Australia’s Recharge Industries, with the latter aiming to reimagine the region’s – and UK’s – electric motoring dreams.
The takeover deal – which was being finalised with administrators as North East Times Magazine went to print – renews hopes of a jobs bonanza, of resurrecting the anticipation spurred by Britishvolt’s plans to create a £3.8 billion, 3000-job battery plant in Cambois, near Blyth, Northumberland.
So too does it revive optimism around creating fresh meaning for a former pit village, which, since the end of its coal heyday, has been locked in a semi-permanent search for identity.
Cambois, by virtue of its perch where land meets water, is well used to the unforgiving swipes and strikes of North Sea weather.
But Britishvolt’s failure provided an altogether stronger slap across its cheeks.
Its vision had provided an escape, a chance to imagine life on an avenue of prosperity, where a new industrial legacy – beyond cradle-to-grave colliers – would be carved out across future generations.
And the story began brightly enough; the poeticism of transforming an ex-power station coal store into a sprawling renewable battery plant bestowed instant page-turner status.
Furthermore, with a site envied by many for its size, as well as its port links and national grid connections, it had more than sufficient chapters to build a wider narrative.
Crucially, however, Britishvolt didn’t have customers (there were memorandum of understandings with Lotus and Aston Martin). And it didn’t have the cash.
And without those, its arc took a decisive nosedive, taking with it the emotions of Cambois residents, as well as those across the wider region and the majority of the 300 staff on Britishvolt’s payroll.
The episode was a bruising period for the Government too.
Having lauded Britishvolt as a pioneer, in the process committing to a £100 million Automotive Transformation Fund deal, the firm’s demise 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 of factories to make the electric batteries needed to offset the end of petrol and diesel vehicle sales across the next decade, and therefore facing increasing market challenges from overseas suppliers, Britishvolt told a story the Government needed 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.
But despite the many positive updates and photo calls, including one with former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng suitably togged in high-visibility jacket and hard hat, the threads of the relationship frayed.
Wrangling over Automotive Transformation Fund cash, with the Government wanting milestones to be met before monies were released, achievements Britishvolt was apparently unable to secure without the finance, created a tailspin-like effect.
Staff took pay cuts, and an 11th-hour investor deal provided backing to take Britishvolt into 2023 on a footing, so said officials, which would provide “a bridge to a more secure funding position for the future”.
Within days of the new year, however, the metaphorical crossing had disintegrated, a sad and abrupt ending for a company whose prologue had promised so much.
And one too that provides a reminder of the importance of strong Government and private sector collaboration.
But the story of the North East’s green transport revolution doesn’t end with Britishvolt.
In truth, it was one of many in a much wider narrative.
One that includes Envision AESC and Nissan, which are partnering on a 1000-job Wearside battery plant.
One that includes Washington-based power train maker Advanced Electric Machines.
One that includes battery system manufacturer Turntide Technologies.
One that includes recent Teesside recruit Altilium Metals, which promises a 250-job plant that will reprocess elements from spent batteries into key components for new power packs.
And one that should soon include Recharge Industries.
And it all means that while Britishvolt’s existence ended in a nightmare, the North East’s electric dreams are very much still alive.
There’s that song again…
Driving ahead with transport change – see page 22