Industry figures have labelled Britishvolt collapse as a ‘squandered opportunity’ and a victim of successive governments' lack of strategic consistency.
Experts and key stakeholders in the UK’s battery industry have responded to an in-depth piece in the Financial Times by Harry Dempsey on the collapse of Britishvolt on Saturday 28 February, in which SCI’s Head of Innovation, David Bott, is briefly quoted.
Referring to the ‘excellent’ article, David expanded on his thoughts in a LinkedIn post sparking discussion among industry figures and academics.
‘Over 10 years ago, the Automotive Council laid out the first of its “roadmaps” to achieve zero carbon cars by 2040 (which was then the goal). They recognised early that if cars made in the UK were to be battery-powered, they needed to make batteries in the UK – moving heavy, energy-filled lumps around was both bad business and poor environmental logic!
‘The first step was to build a national pilot scale facility to manufacture and test battery cells. This was opened at WMG, University of Warwick in 2012 and expanded in 2014. The second step was to be a medium-scale manufacturing plant to both prove the technology and train the people who could run large scale “gigafactories”, as they were then known. The goal then was to build this by 2015-16.
‘There was apparently no consistent strategy in the area across governments, but eventually the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK was given some money to run the competition in 2017. The UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (as it was eventually called) opened in 2021. It is an amazing facility – just what was needed – but it was later than envisaged and by this time the deadline for switching to zero carbon tailpipe emissions had been moved forward to 2030.
‘As the article says, Britishvolt was a customer of the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) – which was exactly as intended. But so are several UK based start-ups, building and testing subsequent generations of battery technologies. If UKBIC had been opened as originally envisaged, perhaps the technological risk of building batteries in the UK would have been lowered and investment easier to justify; perhaps more people would have been available to man this new activity for the UK; and perhaps the government would have had more confidence to back this transformation of the UK automotive industry.
‘As it is, we now have to decide urgently if we want any of this, because we have delayed smaller investments that would have proven the case for larger investment. And, if we decide we still want it, then we have to do something – not make empty promises and not deliver (again).’
Isobel Sheldon OBE, Chief Strategy Officer for Britishvolt responded:
‘There is a UK government view, that in reality and in an ideal world, the market should be left to satisfy demand according to principles of the free market, private money, private business – no subsidies at all. This is where the current government will sit in principle on a more non-interventionist mandate.
‘Of course, this totally ignores what’s happening in the rest of the world, where free market economies no longer dominate global trade – we have command economies like China (albeit loosened) providing significant subsidies that built up industrial capability (such as batteries for the last 15 years) with a strategic long-term view; the USA, which has developed a strategic answer (IRA) to China’s desire to economically dominate trade; the EU, which has been on a grab for important strategic industries (IPCEI and ramping up even more), whilst in the UK, we just sit on our hands and claim that subsidising industries to scale in a workable way just isn’t something that should be done.
‘Is it any wonder why we are behind in so many things that are going to be so important to us as a nation, and in a collective western answer to China’s economic and trade distortions?’
While Dr Graham Spittle, Dean of Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, added:
‘Whilst subsidies can be important, most business investment needs to see clear and consistent policies and a stable outlook. A well articulated industrial plan with real commitment that spans at least five years is needed and is basically table stakes.’
And former government scientific adviser, Brian Collins CB, Emeritus Professor of Engineering Policy, University College London, and one of the original members of the Automotive Council, responded:
‘I was chief scientific adviser to both the Department for Transport, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at the time when the battery road map was developed, along with other critical roadmaps.
‘It is awful to see how the integrated systemic planning for a successful transition to electric vehicles was squandered by successive governments on the bonfires of short-term party political issues. Sustained government policy with coherent objectives over decades is needed for all infrastructure modernisation in order to attract the 100s of billions of private investment needed. And it is not just me saying this – the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), UKCRIC and all professional bodies are saying the same thing.’
To request an interview with David Bott, please contact Maxine Boersma on 07771563373 or Maxine.Boersma@soci.org