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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

Why Bridgwater and its gigafactory matter to all of us in local economic development

In the July 2023 roundup episode of LED Confidential, Mike and David discuss UK government support for a new Tata gigafactory battery plant in Somerset. They discuss what this tells us about the state of play of UK industrial strategy, the implications for local economic development, and why the economics of battery manufacture mean Britain's global role in this crucial industry hangs in the balance (listen from 12.21).

Car factory

Is Bridgwater, a historic market town of 45,000 people and future home of a Tata gigafactory, the next big industrial dynamo of the UK? And what are the roles for local economic development and placemaking if industrial transformation is nationally-led and driven?

The focus in our latest episode on one of Somerset’s three sub-regional centres was stimulated by the July announcement of the intention to build Tata’s UK gigafactory on Gravity – a 616 acre Enterprise Zone site just outside the town. This £4bn investment has been offered at least £500m in Government support. It will produce 40GWh of battery capacity per year – up to half of the UKs needs by 2030, and create 4,000 skilled jobs.

The Gigafactory sits alongside Hinkley Point C, also just outside Bridgwater. The £30bn+ construction of the UKs first new nuclear power station this century, is estimated to create 25,000 employment and 1,000 apprentice opportunities, in a facility that will be able to power over 6,000,000 homes.

Why is the Tata announcement so important nationally?

It demonstrates how critical national support still is for transformational industrial development at scale.

The financial contribution required to land this investment is well beyond anything local and regional government in England can mobilise. Indeed, even nationally, the lowest level of Government support suggested amounts to 50% of the UKs total allocation for its Automotive Transformation fund.

With the other major UK gigafactory investment in the North East, when fully operational, these two will be able to supply over 2/3 of the UK market. If the UK genuinely wants to build internationally competitive battery and associated industries adjacent markets will be critical. Most commentators believe this will require changes in the both the spirit and the letter of cooperation with the EU.

What does it mean locally and regionally?

Having two such major national investments within ten miles of Bridgwater is a huge challenge locally, and of major significance for the whole of South West England and beyond. It requires completely remodelling transport and infrastructure so the town and the sub-region can cope with the construction and thereafter the operation of the two facilities, whilst ensuring the town continues to work well and grow its own offer.

The education, skills, labour, business supply chain and even demographic profile of the area is already changing profoundly, as this Heart of South West briefing published since we recorded our episode shows – bucking longstanding Somerset and Heart of South West weaknesses in these metrics. But the implications, if managed well could be even more radical. We spoke earlier in the LEDC episode about the difficulties of doubling or tripling Cambridge’s population under the government-promoted Cambridge 2040 plan. Should there be something of similar scale for Bridgwater?

Adjacent, and arguably many UK regions, should be looking carefully at Hinkley and Gravity. They may create energy and electrification opportunities for many local economies well beyond the immediate vicinity. And perhaps also look at Bridgwater for learning about how to host, plan and manage transformational change.


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