Gigafactories – Have we stumbled on a consensus?

Ronan Cloud, Director of Economic Development, explores the UK’s need to catch up on gigafactories.

When the  £4bn advanced battery manufacturing plant was announced to be developed in Somerset, the overall mood from across the political spectrum was celebration.

Gigafactories – a term to describe large scale factories that develop and manufacture electrical products associated with decarbonisation (such as EV batteries) – have become a hot topic for all the political parties.

They are seen as critical to decarbonising transport and accelerating the UK’s efforts on electrification. All while supporting skills and generating home-grown innovation that drives a clean growth economy.

Labour has identified around 40 sites for eight new gigafactories across the UK, whilst the Conservatives have made it clear that the potential new plant in Somerset will be a key part of it’s own growth strategy, bring jobs and investment into the country.


Playing catch-up

There is a clear need for this enthusiasm. The UK is well behind other nations when it comes to these facilities. The US has 34 such plants, whilst Germany and France have 12 between them. The UK, so far, has only one – the Nissan plant in Sunderland.

It’s clear that the UK has to catch up, particularly as the country’s automotive industry copes with the challenges it has faced through Brexit and the knock on effects to international trade.


Opposition on the move

As there is a political consensus, it would seem obvious to think that we will be inundated with new gigafactories over the coming years, with each party (including the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party) all clamouring to extol the virtues of these plants.

But, we could be wrong.

There are already some opponents to the proposed Somerset plant lining up. Environmental and green space groups, working with local councillors and campaigners, are starting to mobilise, putting local politicians at odds with their national leaders.

These stakeholders could cause issues throughout the planning process if not managed or engaged with effectively.

Therefore understanding how these plants and facilities could benefit local regions, towns and cities will be vital in ensuring a smoother time during the planning process.


The power of social value

Demonstrating the social value and future legacy each facility could afford will also be key. How many jobs will the schemes create and how will this generate more wealth and further employment locally? How will environmental challenges be overcome and how will the huge scale of these plants be matched with huge power – from renewable sources?

Answering these questions will be important as we move from nationally-focused announcements to the nitty, gritty of planning decision making.

Yes, we have a national consensus on gigafactories, but what about the local scene? Unless managed effectively, we could have a very different story.