Could the UK really lead the world in electric vehicles?

Vroom, vroom. Image: Getty.

Amidst a gloomy series of announcements pointing to car manufacturers pulling out of the UK, there are still some signs that the future could be bright for the UK’s automotive industry.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has announced it will invest hundreds of millions of pounds in electric vehicle (EV) production at its Castle Bromwich plant in the Midlands, helping to secure 2,700 jobs. The previous government had been eager to show its support, handing a £500m loan guarantee to JLR, announcing it will make charging points mandatory in new homes and cutting company car tax for EVs from 2020. In his first address to Parliament as new prime minister, Boris Johnson emphasised his vision for the UK as “the home of electric vehicles”.

But how realistic is this grand ambition? The UK still only attracts a small fraction of the new global investment in electric car manufacturing. China, Germany and the US are getting the lion’s share, with car makers’ planned investments in these countries reaching a total of over $240bn. The domestic EV market lags behind other EU countries. And, while Johnson also claims that the UK is “leading the world in battery technology”, there are no plans for large scale domestic battery manufacturing facilities, with production capacity in Europe instead expected to reach 130 GWh by 2025.

Unless this changes, the global auto industry will continue to invest elsewhere and the UK will miss its chance to claim a major stake in this industry – not to mention the benefits of cleaner air and real progress in cutting carbon from the largest emitting sector in the UK.

Government action in the following three areas could change this picture, however.

First, manufacturers need more certainty about the future market before they will invest. While Brexit will inevitably play a role, upping the domestic demand by bringing forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030, and providing incentives for corporate fleets and private individuals to go electric, including by expanding charging infrastructure, would go a long way to strengthening the home market.

In the uncertainty of the post-Brexit world, it could be a great trade proposition too. Demand for electric vehicles in the EU could reach 12 million vehicles by 2030, which means the UK could capitalise on the growing European market for its car exports and help address the UK’s automotive trade deficit at the same time.


Second, manufacturing electric vehicle batteries requires critical raw materials, like cobalt. The considerable environmental and human costs of mining these materials could lead to supply disruptions, potentially creating barriers to the industry’s growth.

Instead, a system for battery reuse and recycling would mean the UK could provide a ready source to meet half of its cobalt demand in 2035 from domestically used batteries. For this to happen, the government needs to put policies in place that encourage domestic battery manufacturing and reprocessing, including revising the producer responsibility system for EV batteries to improve design, reuse and recycling.

Third, firms investing in electric vehicles could make profits in associated services, and particularly those enabled by new digital technology. For example, electric vehicles could be an infrastructure asset to support the energy system: batteries from idle cars can be deployed for balancing on local energy networks, limiting the need for network reinforcement and enabling further integration of renewables in the power system. This would enable UK firms to access new revenue streams beyond car sales, strengthening their profitability, and maximise the benefits of the transition to electric vehicles for UK citizens.

It is estimated that smart charging and vehicle to grid technology (which allows cars to provide power from the battery back into the grid), could save the energy system in Great Britain up to £270m per year by 2030 in avoided distribution network upgrades and reduced peak energy demand. To realise these opportunities, Ofgem should ensure the ongoing network charging and energy retail market reviews enable better use of EV batteries as part of a smart energy system.

China, Norway and EU countries, such as the Netherlands, have already set high ambitions for zero emissions vehicles. If Boris Johnson is serious about making the UK the “home of electric vehicles”, “powered by British-made battery technology”, his new government needs to act quickly, before it misses the chance.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at the Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.