During the referendum on the EU the car industry and its Remain supporters were full of fears that if we left the EU without a free trade deal with them the 10% tariff the EU would impose on our car exports would do grave damage to our industry. They did not accept that a zero tariff deal was likely, though one was finalised in the end. Nor did they accept that if there were 10% EU tariffs we could have imposed the same on their cars and made more of our cars at home, substituting them for the dearer continental imports. Out of the EU we are also free to take tariffs down on components needed from abroad to lower our total costs of production. I did not see anyone suggest output of our industry might halve if we ended up with some EU tariffs.
The passion behind these fears makes the lack of noise about the collapse of car output since 2016 more surprising. The near halving of output in the last five years has nothing to do with Brexit. We can all agree the pandemic measures dented output badly in 2020 and may have had some lingering effects on 2021. Last year we only made 859,000 cars in the UK. We can agree that the worldwide shortage of microprocessors has impeded production in the last year, as the car industry failed to secure enough supply at a time of maximum competition from the digital revolution companies needing more chips for their successful products. Apple’s gain was BMW’s loss. What seems more contentious is the impact of the race to net zero on the domestic industry which most of the insiders seem unwilling to talk about, let alone cite as an important cause of the decline.
In the last couple of years there has been a collapse in purchases of new diesel cars, and a decline in new petrol cars as a result of governments in advanced countries especially the UK telling people not to buy them. Advanced countries have been discussing how quickly they can end their production altogether and making it clear to customers they wish to become increasingly hostile to the use of internal combustion engine vehicles. The UK has proposed 2030 as the cut off date. The Treasury has also added its contribution to car output decline with a substantial increase in the cost of VED for a new dearer car. The diesel hit has been particularly tough on the UK industry. With government encouragement not so long ago the UK had become an important world centre for diesel technology development and for engine manufacture. Ford for example moved its car assembly out of the UK but built a lot of engines here.
Tesla has turned out to be the winner so far in the expensive end electric vehicles. Tesla makes no cars in the UK. The UK based brands have been slower to compete, and the UK is struggling to catch up with battery production investment, essential if the UK is to be a serious producer of electric vehicles. Maybe it is time to assess the progress of these policies, and to ask how much more damage there is likely to be to an industry which used to make twice as many cars here.
Today I publish four answers I have received to energy questions. They reveal a slow and painful transition to a more realistic stance on UK energy capacity and needs. On the positive side the government is now recognising the need to replace the current nuclear capacity it is closing. It had already committed to the expensive Hinkley C which should come on stream this decade and will offset part of the loss of capacity from nuclear plant closures. It now wants to put in Sizewell C which is also likely to be very expensive and is unlikely before sometime in the next decade. It is also working up plans with Rolls Royce on small modular nuclear reactors. These could be in series production in the next decade and could make a useful contribution to capacity. They are currently thought to be considerably cheaper than large nuclear. That still has to be grounded by establishing a scalable prototype.
The government’s estimate of how much electricity we will need this decade reveals relatively slow rates of growth after 2025 and practically no growth for the first half of the decade. This may be realistic, but it implies the government does not expect many additions to the electric vehicle fleet or to electric home heating before 2025 and a slow rate of climb thereafter. I would have thought they would want to have more capacity available in advance of the breakthrough in the electrical revolution they urge, to reassure potential users that there will be sufficient power for the explosion in demand they want to engineer.
Their approach on gas has shifted a bit, with more recognition of the importance of gas to our current energy needs, and recognition of it as a transition fuel. I believe Ministers also now see the need to produce more domestic gas instead of burning imported gas. However, this answer still leaves open the probability that the Regulators will weight the need to run down gas more highly than the obvious need at the moment to produce more of it at home. They clearly still want to end the three coal power stations that have kept the lights on at times of little wind this winter, which is worrying. Officials seem wedded to energy insecurity as a policy allied to maximising imports. Ministers need to press harder.
I will continue to press the issues of our vulnerability, both because we rely too much on imports and because their forecasts of growth in demand are so small. We need more domestic capacity.