Editor's letter: Is Tata's gigafactory the saviour of UK automotive?

range rover ev render 2023

Jaguar Land Rover will be an “anchor customer” of the Tata battery factory opening as soon as 2026

Commitment to £4 billion battery plant could supercharge investment in the nation’s electrification

Tata’s commitment to building a £4 billion gigafactory has the potential to be a shot in the arm for electric car manufacturing in this country – and not before time. 

The Tata announcement of a new 40GWh battery factory that will be online by 2026 is just the beginning of a solution rather than the solution itself.

However, it is significant in shifting the previously bleak mood and tone around car manufacturing in the UK in the electric era. Now there is something tangible and significant to work with.

The capacity of the Tata site is enough for 40% of the 100GWh of capacity the Faraday Institution says Britain will need by 2030 to satisfy demand for electric vehicles and support local manufacturing.

The other confirmed UK gigafactory is Envision’s in Sunderland, which will have a 12GWh capacity but could go higher.

Plug-in hybrid car battery pack mounted to chassis at JLR Halewood factory

Beyond that, it’s slim pickings and the rumour mill is quiet. The former Britishvolt site remains in flux – the site’s purchaser, Recharge Industries, has allegedly not yet paid for the site and its Australian HQ was recently raided by tax authorities – and the West Midlands Gigafactory hasn’t really got beyond the fancy artist’s sketches stage yet. 

Still, with Tata and Envision, we’re already halfway to the 2030 goal and the two factories will secure long-term futures for domestic car production at JLR’s Castle Bromwich and Solihull sites, and Nissan’s Sunderland plant. Mini too is committed to building electric cars at Oxford, although final details are awaited.

A welcome by-product of the Tata site in particular – which will have JLR as its anchor partner but is set to supply other manufacturers (Stellantis? Toyota?) – is the supply chain it will stimulate. Lithium miners in Cornwall have already been vocal in their support. The supply chain can now be not only established but also ramped up to meet up demand.

The UK has R&D expertise and people talent in abundance, albeit not yet with all the required skills or future automotive industry jobs to support them. Again, the Tata factory can shift the tone here and be a catalyst for meaningful change. 

Rishi Sunak with a model of the Tata Agratas battery factory

The elephant in the room remains a government industrial strategy to underpin all this. The government is said to have stumped up half a billion pounds of incentives for Tata to bring the gigafactory to the south-west, although the terms are not yet clear. Energy costs were said to be one area of help, which shows how unattractive the UK is in this cost-intensive area. 

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch told the FT that “targeted support” would be offered to secure more manufacturing investments although she hinted that the UK would be unable to compete with the seemingly open chequebook being offered elsewhere. Targeted support does not breed the same confidence that a fully clear and disclosed industrial strategy does, and risks a more hand-to-mouth approach that could eke away at the current positivity. 

The PR value for the UK as a place to invest in advanced manufacturing has been huge this week. The narrative has changed and a window has at last opened to secure a long-term future for automotive manufacturing in the UK. The government’s next moves will decide just how big that industry can be.

Source: Autocar

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