It’s confirmed. The co-leaders of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, have become junior ministers in Nicola Sturgeon’s government. Harvie is Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, while Slater is Minister for Green skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity.
Of the two, Slater’s is the more interesting role as it includes green industrial strategy, an area where Scotland has continued to fail under the SNP. If Slater is serious about turning this around then she should make her first ministerial outing a trip to the north-east of England to see how green industrial strategy should be done.
From the Tyne to the Humber, developments in renewables and electrification are coming thick and fast on England’s north-east coast. In July, start-up company Britishvolt secured planning permission to build the UK’s first ‘gigafactory’ car battery plant on the site of the former Blyth power station, north of Newcastle. The multi-billion-pound development will create one of the world’s biggest factories. The plant aims to be operational by 2023, with Britishvolt hoping to be producing enough lithium-ion batteries for 300,000 electric cars by 2027. Building work is scheduled to start in October, and once up and running it should deliver 3,000 direct jobs and 5,000 in the wider supply chain.
Last month meanwhile it was announced that the Siemens Gamesa wind turbine factory in Hull will double in size following an investment of £186 million, securing new jobs manufacturing the next generation of offshore wind turbines and blades longer than 100 meters. The factory supplies blades to the Hornsea Two windfarm off the Yorkshire coast, which will be the world’s largest offshore wind power plant when completed in 2022.
Also this summer, in June, US sustainable tech company Turntide Technologies, which is backed by Bill Gates, acquired three businesses near Newcastle that will form the basis of its plans to be a significant player in the electrification of commercial and industrial vehicles. It now plans to invest more than £100 million in the region.
As Guy Currey, director of development agency Invest North East England, says, ‘The cluster that has developed in the north-east England really is world-leading, and not just because of the companies that have chosen to invest here, but because of the wider infrastructure that exists around the electrification sector in north-east England.’
The contrast with Scotland is stark and should shame the Scottish government. Scotland’s big hope for wind turbine manufacturing was Bifab, which went into administration in December after failing to secure manufacturing contracts – and after burning through over £50 million in Scottish government support.
Another green jobs non-success story is the Scottish government’s agreement in 2016 to provide guarantees to the hydro-powered Lochaber aluminium smelter in Fort William, in a deal involving metals tycoon Sanjeev Gupta’s companies and the now collapsed Greensill Capital.
Bifab and Lochaber were meant to be totemic examples of Scotland’s green industrial success but stand instead as monuments to the SNP administration’s failings.
Add to this recent evidence of window dressing on green jobs and the signs are that the gap between Scotland and north-east England looks set to, if anything, grow.
Take last month’s launch of the Scottish government’s Green Jobs Workforce Academy. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Maybe you’re picturing a shiny new college building in Aberdeen pumping out highly skilled renewables engineers. Think again. The academy amounts to little more than a website pointing people to job adverts, as highlighted by Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon who, in a letter to Nicola Sturgeon, said, ‘I’m afraid that this is yet another example of reality not matching up to your government’s rhetoric.’
There are of course green jobs being created in Scotland. Sturgeon last month visited electricity company Scottish Power to mark a new recruitment drive for 152 such positions. The problem is the gains are tiny and piecemeal, while the Scottish government lacks a coherent industrial strategy.
At the Scottish Power event, Sturgeon said, ‘Looking ahead to COP26 in Glasgow in November, Scotland can be proud that our climate change ambitions, backed by investment in creating a highly skilled green workforce, will be showcased on an international stage.’
This reads like something of a sick joke when you look at the evidence, and especially when you compare Scotland with places like England’s north-east, which appears to be benefitting from a joined-up strategy linking industry, private investment, government support and research. The region is years ahead of its northern neighbour, despite having no parliament of its own or ministers in charge of green industrial policy.
On climate change broadly, Sturgeon’s approach is to set out climate targets and goals and then bank them as achievements. It is no surprise then to find the SNP government talking a good game on renewables while serially failing to deliver.
Slater’s task is to do better. And for that, she must look south.