A £4 BILLION investment in a new ‘gigafactory’ on the Gravity site will be “game-changing” for Somerset’s economy, the leader of Somerset Council has said.

Agratas announced on February 28 that it would be investing £4bn in a new electric vehicle battery factory on the Gravity site, which lies between the villages of Puriton and Woolavington a short distance from junction 23 of the M5.

The new facility, which will occupy the majority of the former Royal Ordnance site, is expected to create around 4,000 new jobs and could be operational by late-2026.

To ensure the delivery of the new facility remains on schedule, Somerset Council is proposing to borrow up to £150m to invest in infrastructure within and near the site.

At a special meeting of the council’s executive committee held in Taunton on Tuesday morning (March 12), council leader Bill Revans described the Agratas announcement as “game-changing” for the county.

%image('17860489', type="article-full", alt="The proposed layout of the Gravity Smart Campus near Bridgwater.")

He added: “It gives us an opportunity to be right at the heart, where we want to be, of the UK’s clean green energy industry and our drive to net zero.

“It will bring 4,000 highly skilled, well-paid jobs and a huge £4bn investment into our economy.

“It links up really well with what we’re doing with Hinkley Point C and with Leonardo and other companies in that high-value engineering sector, to be able to bring a vibrant and prosperous economy here to Somerset.”

The Gravity locality investment plan (GLIP) intends to spread the risk surrounding the new gigafactory between the public and private sectors, learning lessons from the ongoing construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and reducing the risk of the project being scrapped in the face of changing economic conditions or environmental obstacles

The plan envisions that the bulk of the funding to deliver the facility will be handled by Agratas and its partner Tata, but the council will provide targeted investment to provide necessary infrastructure and overcome any viability issues surrounding the site.

The investment could be targeted broadly in the following areas:

  • Strategic access and road infrastructure (which may include restoring the rail link into the site)
  • Abnormal site preparation costs (such as removing contaminated land)
  • Training facilities and programmes (e.g. working with Bridgwater and Taunton College to recruit employees)
  • Supply chain and local infrastructure improvements
  • Transport mitigation (including public transport and active travel)

To deliver all of this, the council will need to borrow around £150m – money which will eventually have to be repaid out of its revenue budget.

To reduce short-term pressure, in light of the council’s precarious financial situation, the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) will provide up to £55m in grant funding over the first few years.

The council will repay the borrowing by retaining all the business rates it will collect from the Gravity site, rather than having to give a portion of this to central government.

%image('17860499', type="article-full", alt="The smart campus will be located between Puriton and Woolavington.")

Currently, it will be able to do this until 2042, when the Gravity site’s designation as an enterprise zone expires.

However, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has hinted this may be extended to 2052, giving the council more time to repay all the borrowing.

Councillor Heather Shearer, portfolio holder for children, families and education, said the Gravity site could be as transformative for Somerset as the Nissan car factory was for the north east, where she grew up.

She said: “I’ve been reflecting on this opportunity, because I come from an old pit village up in the north-east – Washington, in Tyne and Wear.

“You’ll know of it invisibly because it’s the home of Nissan’s ‘Sunderland plant’ – we get very bristly about that.

“I’ve not lived in the north east for an awfully long time, but when I’ve gone back I’ve noticed it has change the way people talk and the way people live up there, which is really good.

“It was once a place where you might be lucky to get a job in the DHSS [Department of Health and Social Security] when it used to be there, or the call centres when they came in.

“But now there’s young people at school excited about apprenticeships, not just as Nissan but in the ‘vertical supply chain’ that’s grown up. Now there’s four or five factories next to it.

“I’m optimistic that this could do the same kind of thing.”

Councillor Theo Butt Philip, portfolio holder for transformation and human resources, said the announcement filled up with hope for future generations across the county.

Mr Butt Philip – who stood in the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency at the 2010 general election – said: “We don’t have a lot of the employment that enables young people who grew up in our county to stay here.

“I’ve got three young children, and I can see a future for them in Somerset if they want it, and I just couldn’t be happier to see this investment in Somerset.”

An updated capital budget, which includes the additional borrowing to deliver the required infrastructure, is expected to come before the executive later in the year, before going before the full council for final approval.