Bright Spark


As the summer faded away, two big announcements gave us an indication of the way the switchover to EVs is going in the UK.

First, BMW said that it would build the next generation of electric MINIs at its factory in Oxford. This may not seem like a big deal given that this plant is already churning out about 40,000 of the current versions of the plug-in MINI, but only last year, BMW had said that future battery-powered models would come from a joint venture with Great Wall Motor in China. The BMW MINI is probably the UK’s most-produced electric car, so that sent a depressing signal about the prospects of the British motor industry achieving a successful transition to the EV age.

But in a welcome U-turn, BMW has said that it will now invest the £600 million required to revamp Oxford to make the latest electric Cooper and Aceman models from 2026. They will be produced alongside the next generation of combustion-engined MINIs, which will go into production at Oxford next year. BMW seems to be optimistic that local content rules, which could see many electric vehicles being exported and imported between the UK and the EU attract expensive tariffs, will be eased – and perhaps this is one of the factors that has persuaded the company that the UK is a viable location for EV production.
The decision by BMW to make the next MINI in the UK comes after a string of encouraging announcements in the EV sector. Nissan and JLR are both setting up big battery plants, and in September, Stellantis completed the transformation of the Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port by commencing production of electric vans there in September. These initiatives, along with the MINI announcement, mean that four of the five most significant UK car makers (we’ll come back to the fifth, Toyota, in a minute) have all substantially committed to EV production here for the foreseeable future.

This is probably as good an outcome as could have been hoped for after Brexit, Covid, and the Ukraine war created a highly uncertain business environment, just as the manufacturers needed to step up UK investment if they were to make the transition to electric here.

Amidst all this good news, though, there is one nagging concern. In the 1980s, the UK was very successful in attracting investment from new entrants, in particular from Japanese manufacturers setting up their first plants in Europe. While we have persuaded companies that are already here to make EVs in the UK, we haven’t really attracted investment from the leading new players in the electric car market. Tesla built its first European factory in Germany, while the big Chinese EV maker BYD said that the UK wasn’t even on its long list of ten possible locations for its first car plant in Europe. And not only have we not been able to attract the likes of Tesla or BYD, but we haven’t been able to come up with our own big home-grown player in EVs to rival Tesla or BYD either. For better or worse, we haven’t so far produced a British Elon Musk.

And the second announcement? The government said that it would put back the headline date for ending sales of non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, moving important milestone target dates creates a less stable investment environment. On the other hand, the change brings the UK more into line with the rest of Europe, and a degree of pragmatic slippage was perhaps inevitable given delays in rolling out the charging infrastructure. It also provides a bit of a breathing space for some of the manufacturers whose electrification plans are less well advanced. It may, in particular, benefit Toyota. The previous target foresaw some hybrid sales continuing for five years after 2030, but the precise hurdle in terms of how ‘electric’ a given hybrid model would need to be in order to stay on sale had not yet been defined, a question of crucial importance to Toyota’s UK operations, which specialise in hybrids. Given that petrol and diesels can now continue to be sold between 2030 and 2035, that complication now falls away, at least for that five-year period.

So to sum things up, four of the UK’s five leading carmakers are going electric, and the fifth has had what may amount to a bit of a reprieve. That’s not a bad result for British car-making.

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