It was as long ago as 1982, back in the pre-privatisation days of the Central Electricity Generating Board, that the idea of building a new nuclear power plant in Suffolk – Sizewell C – was first mooted.
At that time, construction had yet to begin on the neighbouring Sizewell B, which for now remains the youngest of Britain’s operating nuclear power plants.
The first planning application was filed as long ago as 1989 and there have been countless false starts since.
The theoretical cost of construction was pushed up when Margaret Thatcher‘s government insisted that any company building a new nuclear power station would also have to have funding in place for not only its construction but also for the disposal of waste and the eventual decommissioning of the plant.
That proved a major obstacle to new nuclear build which was then further held up by Tony Blair’s reluctance to take on opponents of new nuclear build in his own party – although, in 2006, he eventually committed to the cause, as did his successor, Gordon Brown.
Hinkley Point C, the UK’s first new nuclear power station in a generation, was the upshot.
New financing key to unlocking nuclear
Yet the construction of the Somerset plant is years behind schedule. EDF, the French energy giant building it and which will construct Sizewell C, originally envisaged it opening in 2017. Hinkley Point C is also billions of pounds over budget.
And the coalition government’s decision to guarantee EDF a fixed price for the energy generated at Hinkley Point C, which was necessary to persuade the French company to go ahead with the project, was subsequently heavily criticised.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said the agreement had locked consumers into a “risky and expensive” project – although, ironically, the deal now looks good value following this year’s spike in wholesale electricity prices.
The NAO’s report did, though, make subsequent governments wary, once more, of new nuclear build.
Theresa May immediately demanded a review of Hinkley Point C on becoming prime minister and, even though her government ultimately approved the project, she also took note of a suggestion in the NAO’s report that new funding models be considered for subsequent new nuclear power stations.
That, in a nutshell, is why it has taken so long for Sizewell C to finally get off the ground. These plants are so monstrously expensive to build that no private sector company is willing to bear all of the risks themselves without some support from government. It is also why the likes of Japan’s Hitachi and South Korea’s Kepco have reluctantly walked away from building new nuclear plants at Wylfa on Anglesey, Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Moorside in Cumbria.
So key to unlocking the project has been coming up with a new way of financing it.
The government’s solution is the funding model known as Regulated Asset Base (RAB) – the means by which other major infrastructure projects, such as the £4.3bn Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, have been financed.
Under this arrangement, rather than guarantee whoever builds Sizewell C a set price for the electricity it generates, taxpayers will be taking risk alongside other investors.
This is why the government is investing an initial £700m in the construction of the plant although, with the total cost likely to come in at between £20-£30bn, that will only go so far.
The other elements in the RAB model include electricity consumers – households and businesses – paying for the plant while it is still under construction through their bills.
This is how, for example, the £4.13bn Thames Tideway tunnel now under construction is being financed. A share of the cost of the project, which is aimed at preventing sewage spills into the Thames estuary as well as future-proofing London’s sewerage system for expected population growth, is being met by customers of Thames Water on their bills.
The arrangement means taxpayers share in the pain of any cost-overruns. Other crucial aspects of the RAB model include an ‘economic regulatory regime’ (ERR), overseen by an independent regulator, who determines the extent to which investors and taxpayers will share the risks by setting the amount of revenue that EDF will be allowed as it builds Sizewell C.
Unknown sums but less risk
The government has yet to make clear the sum that billpayers will have to contribute towards the new power station but newspaper reports have suggested it will be in the region of an additional £1 per month per customer.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said today that the lower cost of financing a large-scale nuclear project through this scheme was “expected to lead to savings for consumers of at least £30bn on each project throughout its lifetime” compared with the existing arrangements governing the financing of Hinkley Point C.
So in theory, while there is a risk attached to building Sizewell C, the funding model proposed appears to be less risky than the way in which Hinkley Point C has been financed. The ultimate cost to electricity consumers in the latter case was dictated simply by a decision made a decade ago on the price that EDF would be promised for its power. It currently looks good value but, for much of the last decade, it has not.
Yet the RAB model does have its critics.
Less incentive to control costs
Steve Thomas, emeritus professor of energy at the University of Greenwich, has argued that, by removing construction risk from EDF, the company has less of an incentive to control construction costs. With Hinkley Point C, EDF has had to bear the cost of any over-runs. With Sizewell C, taxpayers would be on the hook.
Professor Thomas argues that this is particularly worrying because he believes EDF’s cost estimates are too optimistic. He has also argued that the £1-a-month levy on household bills, should it come to pass, is also potentially flawed because of assumptions it is making about borrowing costs.
Less risky, for now, appears to be the ownership of Sizewell C. Objections to the involvement of the Chinese state-owned company China General Nuclear, originally raised by the May government, have resulted in the company now being bought out of its interest in Sizewell C. The project will instead be jointly owned by EDF and the UK government – although there has been speculation that new investment could also be brought in from the sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates.
There are, though, some other objections. The idea of building small modular reactors by companies like Rolls-Royce has won support on the basis that the technology could be cheaper and more scalable than big projects like Sizewell C. They would also, in theory, involve less cost in adapting the national grid.
The EDF question
But this means EDF is now effectively run at the behest of the French government. France is also anxious to build new nuclear power plants. Should EDF become cost-constrained it is perfectly plausible that the French state would direct it to focus on its domestic projects rather than its ones overseas.
There have already been hints of this.
EDF’s former chairman and chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy, who was effectively fired by President Macron after opposing nationalisation, was a strong supporter of Sizewell C but was hampered by the French government’s constant demands for more information on the project.
One final risk is that electricity demand does not increase in the way that the government is assuming and that Sizewell C’s output may not be needed.
However, with electricity demand projected to double as the UK decarbonises, that feels less worrisome than some other factors – and particularly now Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the UK having more indigenous sources of energy.
Government homes in on £5bn cladding settlement with housebuilders
Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is closing in on a multibillion pound deal with Britain’s biggest housebuilders to help resolve the national cladding crisis exposed by the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.
Sky News has learnt that major companies including Barratt Developments and Persimmon are preparing for the imminent signing of a legally binding contract with the government that could ultimately cost the industry £5bn or more.
One executive said they expected the final contract to be signed and unveiled as soon as next week, although they cautioned that the timing remained fluid.
Last year, dozens of developers signed a pledge to fix buildings constructed since the early 1990s, with revisions to the deal with government in recent weeks having focused on the scope of companies’ exposure.
The City watchdog is thought to have been involved in discussions with the industry about whether signing the contract would require the approval of shareholders in listed companies such as Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey.
Sources have estimated the cost of the new Residential Property Developers Tax at up to £3bn and the bill for self-remediation at around £2bn.
A further tax on the industry could raise £3bn, industry executives have concluded, leading some companies and investors to warn that the sector risks seeing a flight of capital.
Earlier this month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was “finalising the legally binding contracts that developers will sign to fix their unsafe buildings, and expect them to do so very soon.
“We will not accept any backsliding on their commitments.
“It is building owners’ legal responsibility to make sure that all buildings are safe.”
FTSE-100 housebuilders have already taken significant financial provisions in their accounts to prepare for the signing of the final government contract.
Some have flagged during recent earnings calls with analysts that they expected an imminent settlement.
“In signing the pledge, we’re saying that we essentially had a commitment that we wanted to sign up to the legal agreement,” David Thomas, Barratt’s chief executive, told analysts this month.
” There’s been a process of discussion regarding the legal agreement that has been ongoing since June last year, so we think we’re getting close to the government publishing the legal agreement, and we would expect in due course that we would sign up to that.”
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said: “The pledge [signed last year] demonstrated the industry’s commitment to play its part in ensuring leaseholders don’t pay for work needed to make buildings safe.
“We have been working constructively with government to ensure the detailed contract reflects the commitments of the pledge and we await a final version.
“UK housebuilders are taking responsibility and are well progressed with remediating their own buildings and are already paying another £3bn to fund work on buildings built by foreign companies and others.
“Government now needs to deliver on commitments to secure contributions from foreign builders and the material providers at the heart of this issue and avoid targeting UK housebuilders further for buildings built by others”.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt set to declare that dire predictions about UK’s future are ‘wrong’
The chancellor will dismiss “gloom” about the prospects for the UK economy and say the government will bring about long-term prosperity in a plan “energised” by Brexit.
Mr Hunt will deliver an upbeat message in a keynote speech today, where he will say the government has a plan to use “British genius and British hard work” to boost economic growth and make the country “the world’s next Silicon Valley”.
He will go on to say the UK is “poised to play a leading role in Europe and across the world in the growth sectors which will define this century”.
According to advance extracts from his speech released by the Treasury, he will also say “declinism about Britain was wrong in the past and it is wrong today”.
Speaking at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, Mr Hunt is also expected to continue to resist calls from some Tory MPs for tax cuts to kickstart flagging economic growth.
Instead he will say the UK should exploit the opportunities provided by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to raise productivity while using the proceeds of growth to support public services.
Mr Hunt will say that some of the “gloom” about the current economic outlook is based on statistics that “do not reflect the whole picture”.
“Like every G7 country, our growth was slower in the years after the financial crisis than the years before it,” he will say.
“But since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. Since the Brexit referendum, we have grown at about the same rate as Germany.
“If we look further ahead, the case for declinism becomes weaker still. The UK is poised to play a leading role in Europe and across the world in the growth sectors which will define this century.”
Mr Hunt will also say: “Our plan for the years that follow is long-term prosperity based on British genius and British hard work.
“(And) world-beating enterprises to make Britain the world’s next Silicon Valley.”
The chancellor will add: “It is a plan necessitated, energised and made possible by Brexit which will succeed if it becomes a catalyst for the bold choices we need to take.
“Our plan for growth is a plan built on the freedoms which Brexit provides. It is a plan to raise productivity.
“It is a plan to use the proceeds of growth to support our public services at home, to support businesses in the new low-carbon economy and to support democracy abroad.
“It is the right course for our country and the role in the world to which we aspire.”
Mr Hunt will also use his speech to announce that the government is to proceed with reforms to so-called “Solvency II” – an EU directive that governs the amount of funds British insurers are required to hold in reserve.
The Treasury pointed to an estimate by the Association of British Insurers which suggested the changes could unlock up to £100bn of private investment into UK infrastructure and clean energy – such as nuclear power – over the coming decade.
His address will come after a cabinet away day at Chequers yesterday, where Mr Hunt told ministers they must maintain their “disciplined approach” if they are to get inflation under control.
The chancellor is facing calls from some Tory MPs to cut taxes in his budget in March to inject growth into the economy.
But at Chequers, both he and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emphasised the priority remained inflation which was only predicted to fall because of the “tough decisions” taken to stabilise the economy following former PM Liz Truss’s catastrophic mini-budget tax giveaway.
“The chancellor said it would be necessary to retain this disciplined approach in order to reduce inflation, because it is the greatest driver of the cost of living,” according to a No 10 readout of the meeting.
UK car production slumps to 66-year low but improvement expected ahead
UK car production fell to its lowest level since 1956 last year, according to industry figures showing that the global shortage of parts continued to drag on performance.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) had already reported how the sale of new vehicles in 2022 was severely damaged by the lack of key components, particularly semiconductor chips.
COVID-led supply chain disruption harmed the ability of UK factories to drive availability to meet demand, though there is optimism the worst is now behind the sector.
Although 2022 will not be considered a success, there was limited progress in efforts to produce more zero emission or more climate-friendly vehicles as the clock ticks down towards the 2030 ban on the sale of new cars powered by diesel and petrol.
A total of 775,014 cars were built in 2022, the SMMT said.
That was down almost 10% from the 859,575 made during the previous year and 40.5% below pre-COVID crisis levels in 2019.
The SMMT said the figures were distorted by the closure of Honda’s factory in Swindon in July 2021 and the decision by Stellantis to stop producing the Vauxhall Astra in Ellesmere Port in April 2022 to produce electric vans instead.
The bright spark was the production of 234,066 fully electric, or battery electric vehicles (BEV), plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and hybrid (HEV) electric vehicles.
It was a record total, with combined production up 4.5% versus 2021.
Hybrids and BEVs accounted for 30.2% of all car production, the SMMT said.
Independent forecasts suggest the reopening of the Chinese economy from COVID restrictions should help drive a 15% increase in UK output this year as crucial chips become more readily available.
There are challenges.
These include the risk of investment flowing to the United States due to heavy government subsidies.
The collapse of the Britishvolt electric vehicle battery start-up has also raised fears over the domestic supply chain ahead of the 2030 deadline.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: “The potential for this sector to deliver economic growth by building more of these zero-emission models is self-evident; however, we must make the right decisions now.
“This means shaping a strategy to drive rapid upscaling of UK battery production and the shift to electric vehicles based on the UK automotive sector’s fundamental strengths – a highly skilled and flexible workforce, engineering excellence, technical innovation and productivity levels that are among the best in Europe.”
A government spokesperson said of the state of affairs: “We are determined to ensure the UK remains one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing.
“Our success is evidenced by the £1bn investment in Sunderland in 2021, and we are building on this through a major investment programme to electrify our supply chain and create jobs.”
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