Red Wall forgotten: The inside story of the community furious at broken levelling up promise
Ministers and local business leaders have talked about the prospect of a huge battery-making plant in the Northeast
A scrappy-looking piece of land in Cambois, just north of Newcastle, has taken on huge political significance. The 93-hectage plot is the proposed site of a brand new gigafactory – which could significantly boost the economy of a region long beset by slow economic growth and below-average living standards.
For several years, ministers and local business leaders have talked about the prospect of a huge battery-making plant in the Northeast – a facility expected to provide 3,000 jobs and generating another 5,000 among firms in the local supply chain, while bolstering car-making across the region and the UK as a whole.
But in mid-January, Britishvolt – the company behind the proposed Cambois plant – collapsed into administration. The majority of its 230 staff were made redundant with immediate effect. Britishvolt had ran out of cash, having been unable to attract the private sector investment needed to unlock £100m of government funding for the plant.
This single business failure has raised questions about the Northeast’s role at the heart of the UK’s new “green industrial revolution”. It has also cast doubt over the government’s broader aim of “levelling up” some of the UK’s poorest regions – a strategy seen as central to the Tories’ electoral prospects.
Since 2019, Britishvolt – backed by the mining giant Glencore – has been trying to raise cash for the huge £3.6 billion gigafactory on the Cambois site. Once at full capacity, the plant is expected to produce around 300,000 lithium-ion battery packs per year for electric vehicles (EVs)
If the factory goes ahead, it would amount to the biggest investment in the Northeast since Nissan arrived in 1986. The Japanese manufacturing giant has since helped to transform the Northeast into one of the UK’s biggest car-making hubs.
As the government’s 2030 legal deadline for the banning of new petrol and diesel cars approaches, sales of EVs are set to soar. Industry sources agree that electric cars and vans are more likely to be made in the Northeast if the heavy batteries are also made nearby.
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A particularly suitable site
The Cambois site is widely viewed as a particularly suitable site to build a gigafactory. Having previously housed a power plant, the proposed facility could be quickly and cheaply connected to the national grid. The deep-water port of Blyth is also very close, allowing for the shipment of batteries.
Blyth, in addition, is already linked-up to multiple offshore wind turbines, providing a ready source of renewable energy to build multiple gigafactories. The availability of such power will grow, as the huge Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, set to be the biggest in the world, is completed over the next few years.
While Britishvolt had signed outline agreements with UK-based carmakers including Aston Martin and Lotus Cars, it had yet to gain firm customer commitments. Preparatory work began on the Cambois site in 2021, with production initially expected to begin by the end of 2023. That was later pushed back to the end of 2024 and then mid-2025. Now Britishvolt has gone bust, there are widespread concerns the proposed gigafactory, and the related jobs, may not materialise.
“It's really, really disappointing for the Northeast and the UK to see Britishvolt collapse,” says Paul Butler, CEO of the Northeast Automotive Alliance. “We’d like the government to step up and explore if it can support either Britishvolt or someone else coming in to take over the site – the number one place in the UK to produce batteries”.
Matt Boyle is Professor of Practice in Engineering at Newcastle University and Chair of Driving the Electric Revolution, a specialist research group linked to government. He agrees the Cambois site has huge potential.
“Because of its history, it already has the necessary infrastructure in place that’s needed for a battery plant,” Professor Boyle says. “You’ve got power coming in from the North Sea, you’re connected to the national grid and then you’ve got the Blyth deep-water port and related transport links. All are key to manufacturing the batteries and getting them away safely”.
Down the coast in Sunderland, US energy company Turntide, making smaller batteries for industrial use, has already invested heavily in the region. The company predicts new investors will emerge to build the Cambois gigafactory.
“When Turntide decided to pivot into transport electrification, we looked to the Northeast of England because it has the production capability and engineering capability, with the necessary talent and depth in the local workforce,” says Mark Cox, General Manager of Turntide. “Despite this latest setback, the Cambois battery plant may well happen – and if it doesn’t, I think the jobs will anyway be created elsewhere in this region”.
Many locals in Cambois say the long-awaited gigafactory amounts to another broken promise. John Charlton – son of the 1966 England World Cup hero Jackie – owns and runs a pub right next to the proposed site. He doesn’t believe Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledges of commitment to the region but doesn’t trust Labour either.
“The only thing they’re both interested in is fighting each other,” Charlton told GB News.” They’re not worried about the people – those of us who live in the northeast are not being considered at all.’’
Local dog-walker Tracey Miller is also sceptical of Rishi Sunak’s claims. “They don’t back the Northeast enough – they say they do, but when it comes down to it, they don’t,” she says. “A lot of people are against the Tories up here”.
The UK needs an estimated ten battery-making gigafactories by 2030 – when sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles are due to be outlawed. Britishvolt’s plant would have been only the second.
“Spades in the ground?”
But well-informed locals are hopeful this factory will be built, given the strengths of both the Cambois site and the local workforce. “It was good to see the government commit £100 million through the Automotive Transformation Fund, and there’s a good chance this plant will happen” says Paul Butler of the Northeast Automotive Alliance. “Let’s hope that if somebody else does come in they’re able to meet the investment obligations, so releasing the state money which will be a key contributor towards making this Cambois site a huge success.”
Professor Matt Boyle of Newcastle University also remains upbeat. “I’m almost certain there will be a plant on this site, not least because of the available infrastructure,” he says. “It is the best place in the country for a battery plant, bar none.”
The collapse of Britishvolt, and the questions now posed about the future of the Cambois gigafactory, exposes the government to accusations the “green industrial revolution”, and the Northeast’s role in delivering it, has been over-hyped. Opposition MPs say the delay in constructing this facility also illustrates that Tory claims to be “levelling-up” the UK amount to nothing but a political slogan.
Some would indeed argue that the headlong rush towards EVs is misguided and will at some stage rapidly reverse – with the UK ultimately scrapping the upcoming 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles. Sceptics worry the batteries rely on rare earth minerals found in China, Africa and other difficult-to-access parts of the world, making the industry geopolitically vulnerable.
Having said that, canny investors know that the government is desperate to point to examples of its “levelling up” agenda generating growth and jobs in so-called “left behind regions” – seeing as Tory majority relies on retaining at least some of the “Red Wall” seats the party gained from Labour in 2019.
As such, given the symbolic importance of this proposed gigafactory, strategic investors may instead be waiting for Downing Street to sweeten the deal even more, weighing in with yet more government money over the coming months – on top of the previously pledged £100 million. Ministers would then be able to point to “spades in the ground” at Cambois before the next general election, expected by the end of 2024.
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