Britain is determined to compete in the global race for green investment, the chancellor has told Sky News, days before the expected announcement that Jaguar Land Rover owner Tata will build a major new battery factory in the country.
Jeremy Hunt said that he was prepared to deploy subsidy money from the government’s £1bn war chest to help support these big green projects, despite warning only last month about the dangers of new subsidies.
It came as he unveiled a host of new measures, worth a combined £650m, designed to help encourage the life sciences and pharmaceuticals sector in the UK.
The Tata chairman is due to visit Downing Street next week to confirm that the Indian industrial giant has chosen Britain over Spain as the location of its new battery plant, which will serve its car business in the UK, as well as Europe.
The competition between the nations was hotly fought, and the Tata package is understood to be worth around £500m, including support on a range of matters, most notably energy costs.
“I can’t talk about any commercial discussions,” Mr Hunt said.
“But what I can say is that we understand – the prime minister and I – that we’re in a global race to attract investment, and we will always do what it takes to make sure the UK remains competitive.”
Asked about whether that included subsidies, he said: “We have a £1bn automotive transformation fund.
“We know that other countries are supporting companies who make these investments.
“It’s obviously good for the UK – not just to create these jobs, but also to transition to net zero – and the transition to electric cars is a very important part of that.”
Distancing from Boris Johnson-style industrial strategy
The comments underline an important shift in the mood music coming from government, which sought to distance itself from Boris Johnson-style industrial strategy in its early days.
The US Inflation Reduction Act, through which Washington is providing hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies to green energy producers and battery makers, has changed that dynamic.
But Mr Hunt said the government was determined not to “pick winners”.
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“What happened in the 1970s was that we picked companies like British Leyland, put money into them, and it didn’t work,” he said.
“And we have learned that we can support sectors, but in the sectors we support we want to foster fierce competition between the players in those sectors.
“But we are completely clear that the sectors we’re backing, the sectors where Britain does really well – technology, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, clean energy – these are the sectors that are going to make us prosperous and successful in the 21st century.”
The chancellor said his Life Sci For Growth package was an illustration of that – bringing together some existing funds for research, alongside some changes to planning rules which will make it easier to build new labs.
The package also confirmed the “preferred route alignment” for the east-west rail route into Cambridge, a long-awaited train link which has provoked a planning backlash from locals living on the route.
He said: “We are finding £650m to support one of our most promising growth industries – something where we’re a European leader, a global leader – and the signal we’re sending to those companies all over the world is that if you want to develop new medicines, we’ve got our fantastic NHS for clinical trials, which we’re now unlocking; we’ve got great infrastructure around Cambridge, but we’ve also got fantastic infrastructure in the rest of the country.
“And we are backing that as a government.”