Toshiba's failure shows private sector cannot deliver nuclear future for UK | Phillip Inman

As Cumbria reactor plan stalls, it is clear that huge resources are needed for such projects

If the government was keen to boost Britain’s nuclear industry, it was always clear that the private market would struggle to deliver.

The decision by Toshiba to close down its UK operations is a case in point. After the deal to build new reactors at Hinkley Point with the French firm EDF, Toshiba was favoured by ministers to design and construct a smaller power station on the Cumbrian coast.

Hinkley was a deal that appeared to be with a private company but the really meaningful talks were between Whitehall officials and their counterparts in the French government, EDF’s controlling shareholder. It took years of agonising brinkmanship to conclude the talks, much of them conducted on the French side by the then economy minister, Emmanuel Macron.

Toshiba, on the other hand, is a private company struggling on its own to navigate the complex politics surrounding nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

In 2006 it bought the US nuclear business Westinghouse, part of British Nuclear Fuels and home to much of the UK’s nuclear power industry. With climate change creeping to the top of the agenda and demand for new nuclear plants around the world growing, it seemed like a good idea.

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However, the 2011 Fukushima disaster changed all that. Governments in Japan and other countries halted the development of new nuclear plants. Last year, cost overruns on building the first new US nuclear power plants in three decades pushed Westinghouse into bankruptcy and Toshiba into financial meltdown. The future of the Cumbrian nuclear plant has been in doubt ever since.

Earlier this year Toshiba sold Westinghouse to a private equity outfit as a services provider for existing nuclear plants. The construction of new reactors was not on the agenda. To no one’s surprise, Toshiba has now confirmed it has abandoned building any new plants in the UK.

Without entering the argument about whether nuclear is a good option – and the government advisory body, the National Infrastructure Commission, is unequivocal that renewables such as wind and solar were going to be a safer, cheaper option – it is clear huge commitments of time, resources and political capital are necessary for infrastructure projects of this scale to get off the ground and through to completion.

Amazon delivers further misery to UK high streets

On Thursday, Amazon unveiled the architectural plans for a new “fulfilment centre” covering the north-east. Such is the banality of its design, it will fail to dazzle and amaze anyone who passes it on the A66 outside Darlington. Nobody will be distracted by its grey exterior and shed-like construction. The Angel of the North will look down and cry.

And yet this architectural crime will be nothing compared to the damage it is likely to cause to high streets across the north-east, and none more so than Darlington’s, which has already lost many of its bigger shops.

Analysts at PwC say the north-east has seen a net loss of 72 shops in the first half of 2018. These are the outlets of multiple retailers and the report therefore leaves outside its ambit the many independent shops that have gone to the wall.

The north-east was not even the worst. The West Midlands lost 89 of its larger shops.

Among the latest to announce closures are Evans Cycles, Debenhams, House of Fraser and New Look. Marks & Spencer is shrinking its high street footprint, as are many others.

The trend is unstoppable and affecting everywhere. London is not immune, despite the welter of tourists charging through the West End and beyond. London saw 448 large shops open and 716 close, giving a net loss of 268.

Former chancellor George Osborne knew the high street was dying back in 2015. A smart cookie, he hatched a plan to put councils in charge of business rates, the tax that all bricks-and-mortar businesses pay based on the rentable value of their property.

Just a quick look at the Amazon shed shows that its rentable value will be a fraction of the shops it replaces. And in the town centres, the trajectory for rateable values is only going down.

Osborne’s scheme is inspired by the US, where mayors and local governments bargain away tax revenues in return for factories, distribution sheds and the like being located in their areas. Jobs, any jobs, are their priority.

Which raises the questions, are the 3,500 Amazon jobs on the outskirts of Darlington the equivalent of shop worker positions in the town? Not when towns are hollowed out, tax revenues plummet and the quality of local jobs slumps.


Phillip Inman

The GuardianTramp

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