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Why UK pledge to become ‘Saudi Arabia’ of wind power rings hollow

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At three mothballed fabrication yards in Scotland, promises by Boris Johnson that the UK would become the “Saudi Arabia” of wind power rang hollow as their owner BiFab, a producer of giant foundations for offshore turbines, collapsed last month.

The move into administration by the 20-year-old Fife company, which at its peak employed up to 2,000 workers at the three yards, came just a fortnight after the UK prime minister had placed offshore wind at the centre of his “green industrial revolution”. Mr Johnson’s 10-point plan promised 60,000 jobs and turbines in British waters that would “power every home” by 2030.

BiFab’s struggles in recent years, which saw it lose out on lucrative contracts on UK projects to competitors in the United Arab Emirates and China, meant its collapse came as little surprise.

But the demise of the company, which had its roots in the North Sea oil industry, was still a painful reminder of the empty promises made by successive governments that offshore wind would herald a bright new industrial dawn for Britain.

The UK’s waters are home to more offshore wind farms than anywhere else in the world but this concentration has not translated into the jobs and manufacturing boom envisaged in the years since the first one came on stream 20 years ago.

Gordon Brown announces an expansion in offshore wind farms in 2010 during his tenure as UK prime minister © Leon Neal/Getty Images

In his last year in office in 2010, then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown said the UK’s leading position in offshore wind meant the sector could support up to 70,000 jobs by 2020. But in reality, direct employment and supply chain jobs stand at an estimated 11,000, according to RenewableUK, the industry lobby group.

“It’s a con,” said Gary Smith, secretary of the GMB union in Scotland, which includes BiFab workers among its members. “What the UK is, is the biggest offshore wind sector in the world and the only expertise is about how we offshore jobs.”

His scepticism is shared in north-east England, another area of the UK that had hoped to benefit from an offshore wind jobs boom.

The region is “living off the crumbs of the major orders”, said Bruce Shepherd, chairman of Shepherd Offshore, a family-owned Newcastle business that owns industrial sites on the banks of the Tyne. “The government isn’t insisting the fabrication is done in the UK like it was when we were doing oil and gas.”

Offshore wind farm costs: capex accounts for the lion’s share of spend on projects in British waters. Breakdown of overall costs of wind farm

RenewableUK estimates that for every pound of capital expenditure on offshore wind projects, which accounts for the lion’s share of overall spend, just 29p goes into the UK economy. If development costs, operations and maintenance are added in, based on an assumed 30-year life cycle, this figure increases to 48 per cent.

Mr Johnson has said he wants that figure to rise to 60 per cent by 2030, which includes between 40 and 50 per cent of capex spent with UK-based suppliers, according to the business department.

But Dennis Clark, the former chairman of engineering company Offshore Group Newcastle, who has long highlighted the difficulties for British companies trying to win work in offshore wind, said the government needed to be more ambitious. “It needs to be 60 per cent of capex.”

In November, ministers launched a consultation that included proposals to strip developers of subsidy contracts if they failed to deliver promised support for the UK supply chain. The business department said “ensuring the UK’s workforce and supply chain can fully share in the offshore wind sector’s success is a key priority for the government”.

Offshore wind developers, which include some of the largest European energy groups such as Denmark’s Orsted, Norway’s Equinor, Spain’s Iberdrola and the UK’s SSE, have insisted UK companies have been capturing more of the overall spend in recent years.

Keith Anderson, chief executive of ScottishPower, which is owned by Iberdrola, told the FT Energy Transition Strategies Summit in December that UK content eight years ago was closer to 30 to 35 per cent.

General Electric is exploring the case for building a wind turbine factory in north-east England that would give the government’s push an early boost, adding to other manufacturing sites, including MHI Vestas Offshore Wind’s blade plant on the Isle of Wight and a similar facility owned by Siemens Gamesa in Hull.

BiFab workers demonstrating in Edinburgh in 2017 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

But unions insist one new factory would do little to boost the UK’s global position in the industry and called on ministers to do more to show they were serious. “The plight of BiFab highlights the total absence of an active strategy to support and develop our domestic renewables manufacturing base,” said Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect union.

Developers said government subsidy auctions for offshore wind, which tend to prioritise the lowest costs to consumers, lead to big contracts going overseas as this makes tenders to supply the kit extremely price sensitive often to the detriment of UK-based companies. “If there’s a relentless drive to cut costs to the bone then this is where we end up,” said Nick Sharpe of Scottish Renewables, the Glasgow-based green energy lobby group.

They also pointed to under-investment in key infrastructure over the last two decades, which has left UK manufacturers struggling to compete with the more modern and efficient facilities elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

In contrast, successive governments in Denmark, one of the early pioneers of wind power, have supported the sector since its inception and the country boasts large manufacturing hubs around modern port facilities.

Paul Cooley, director of capital projects at SSE, said: “Having large ports with a large amount of quayside and real estate to lay down equipment . . . those become really important in mass production.”

Industry executives said the UK government’s recent £160m commitment to help modernise ports and manufacturing infrastructure was a fraction of what was needed.

But there are opportunities for the UK to build a strong position in areas such as electrical systems and blade technology, according to Andrew Macdonald, senior innovation manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.

“It’s about spotting the real opportunities where there is a need for increased capacity [and] where the UK has facilities and skills available to deliver that,” he said.



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Analysis

DUP’s new leader strives to stabilise N Ireland’s biggest party

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, new leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, is striving to heal DUP wounds that pose a very potent threat to its status as the region’s most powerful political force.

The 58-year-old is expected to ease internal divisions by sharing the DUP’s prized ministerial positions in Northern Ireland’s government between his supporters and those of Edwin Poots, his predecessor as party leader, who was ousted last week after just 21 days in the job.

Donaldson, named DUP leader on Tuesday, is also aiming to unite the party around the cause of aggressively pressing the UK government to overhaul contentious post-Brexit trading rules between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

These arrangements were strongly criticised but ultimately tolerated by Poots and by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s former first minister. Her removal as DUP leader in April heralded what has been the most tumultuous period in the party’s 50-year history. 

The urgency of forging consensus within the DUP stems from a big decision facing Donaldson: whether to endorse a first minister appointed by Poots against the party’s will, propose a replacement, or collapse Northern Ireland’s government in protest at post-Brexit trading rules.

A collapse would have far-reaching consequences beyond the DUP: the power-sharing government at Stormont established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement drew a line under the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

Shuttering the Stormont assembly could destabilise the region in the early stages of the summer marching season, which often inflames tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholic nationalist community and Protestant unionists.

“We need Stormont established for people to see that politics is working and it’s not always in a perpetual crisis,” said Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a peace-building organisation. “Wherever you have a political vacuum there is always the danger of violence.”

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, Donaldson, a senior DUP MP at Westminster, knows that at the very least he is counting down to Stormont assembly elections scheduled for May. He intends to stand in them, and then become first minister, he told the Financial Times.

But the elections will be a public test that the DUP is ill-equipped to face in its current state of disarray. One recent opinion poll put its support among voters as low as 16 per cent, compared to more than 35 per cent in the early days of Foster’s leadership.

“The DUP machine . . . is completely unfit for an election compared to how primed they usually are,” said Sophie Whiting, co-author of an award-winning book about the DUP. 

DUP founder Ian Paisley addresses a meeting in Belfast in 1972 © Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Established as a hardline breakaway from the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP was for decades synonymous with its founder, the late Rev Ian Paisley. He set up his own Free Presbyterian church and was famed for quotes like “save Ulster from sodomy” in his effort to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the late 1970s.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an Irish historian, said some of what has played out in the DUP since Paisley stepped down as leader in 2008 was typical of the “infighting after a very dominant authoritarian figure departs the stage”.

Neither of the DUP’s subsequent two leaders — Peter Robinson or Foster — had the charisma of Paisley, and internal party divisions became more pronounced.

But the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU has also played a central role in the DUP ructions. The pro-Brexit party briefly enjoyed major influence at Westminster when it propped up Theresa May’s minority UK government, and the DUP rejected her withdrawal agreement with the EU.

But when Boris Johnson replaced May as UK prime minister, the DUP accused him of betrayal after he finalised a Brexit deal that created a customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Treating their region differently to the rest of the UK was anathema to Northern Ireland’s unionists.

“It’s very hard for [the DUP] to explain what happened,” said Alex Kane, a longtime Northern Ireland commentator.

Unionist protesters demonstrate against the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement in Portadown © Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The DUP has also been coming under threat from the winds of change in the region. Young people, and their parents and grandparents, have begun to embrace gay rights, abortion and other issues that clashed with the DUP’s deep conservatism.

Dissatisfaction with Foster inside the DUP included a perceived softening of her stance on social issues after she failed to vote against legislation banning gay conversion therapy.

But the biggest issue for Foster was the DUP’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol — the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal that introduced the border in the Irish Sea.

Tim Cairns, a former DUP adviser, said the criticism of Foster “wasn’t that she was too soft on the protocol, it was that she was too soft in the action she was taking to get rid of the protocol”.

Poots succeeded Foster with promises to do better on the DUP’s most important issues, and to embrace a more inclusive leadership style.

He failed at both, notably by agreeing to continue the power-sharing government involving the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Féin party on terms overwhelmingly opposed by his colleagues at Stormont and Westminster.

Poots infuriated DUP politicians by striking an agreement under which Westminster will pass legislation to protect and promote the status of the Irish language — a top priority for Sinn Féin.

Abortion rights protest at Stormont © Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Donaldson on Monday launched his bid to lead the DUP with a warning that the government at Stormont could collapse if the UK did not take “decisive action” on the Northern Ireland protocol.

A UK government official said Donaldson was seen as a “more pragmatic” figure than Poots, adding that the new DUP leader’s experience at Westminster meant he had “relationships with people” that could ease negotiations on the protocol.

Still, securing changes to the protocol will be difficult, not least because any revisions must be agreed with the EU. The British official rejected the suggestion that the UK government would have to give the DUP a sweetener on the protocol to ensure Northern Ireland’s stability.

Kane said he believed Donaldson would do everything possible to avoid a collapse of the region’s government. “He isn’t giving up Westminster and coming back to Northern Ireland just to allow the assembly to come down,” added Kane. “He wants to be first minister.”

As for the future of the DUP, while the party has been scarred by recent events, Donaldson arguably inherits a better situation than his predecessor.

In particular, Poots resolved the contentious Irish language legislation, relieving Donaldson of an issue that was always going to be problematic for some inside the DUP.

Furthermore, Donaldson is privately more progressive on social issues than he is in public, and a strategic long-term thinker, according to people who know him.

Cairns said: “There are certainly problems within the party, [but] if anybody is going to sort that out I think Jeffrey is probably best placed to do that.”



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Conservatives’ ideological splits exposed by big spending rail projects

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Boris Johnson has been urged by Conservative MPs representing the ‘red wall’ of former Labour heartland seats not to cut back major rail infrastructure projects as the UK prime minister comes under pressure from chancellor Rishi Sunak to rein in ambitious plans for public spending.

The National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the government, recently said plans to extend the High Speed 2 rail project to Leeds should be scrapped to save £32bn from its expected budget of over £100bn. Earlier this week the FT revealed that costs on HS2 have risen by £1.7bn in the past year — partly because of the pandemic — although this was covered by the project’s contingency budget.

Meanwhile the Treasury has not yet given the sign-off to the Northern Powerhouse rail project, which is supposed to link the north’s big cities from Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and which could cost a further £39bn.

The uncertainty over the multibillion pound transport schemes underline the tensions between Johnson and Sunak in recent weeks over a number of spending projects, with the Treasury eager to dampen Downing Street’s appetite for spending. Number 10 has clashed with other Whitehall ministries over social care reform and a new “royal yacht”.

Johnson is seen by his party as the most pro-spending Conservative leader since Harold Macmillan’s time in Downing Street from 1957 to 1963. Since Margaret Thatcher took over the party in 1975, it has shunned stimulating demand through spending, opting instead for tax cuts.

One senior Treasury insider said that Sunak’s view was “there are choices that have to be made” and it was important to stabilise the public finances as the UK emerged from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The chancellor announced two tax changes in his March budget — freezes in the personal income tax threshold and a rise in corporation tax.

“What he did at the Budget was to put us back on to a more stable trajectory, get debt falling and get our public finances on to a stable footing. He made it very clear that the two tax changes are things he wanted to do to achieve that. But he’s not necessarily keen on raising any more taxes on people, particularly personal taxation,” the official said.

HS2 is designed to run from London to Manchester via Birmingham and Crewe. But the “eastern leg of HS2 2b” — extending from the West Midlands to Leeds — has been criticised by many Tory MPs in its traditional southern strongholds, who believe it should be scrapped.

Tories elected for the first time in the 2019 election have privately warned that it would be a mistake to cancel it. “Our first time voters are watching and waiting for the government to prove they’re delivering on the promises we made them in 2019,” one newly elected MP said.

Other Tories insist the Northern Powerhouse Rail, sometimes referred to as HS3, is even more important. “It’s absolutely crucial that ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ is built. I wasn’t a big fan of HS2 but this is exactly what we have to build to deliver on the trust that was put on us,” another MP said.

Following a report carried by the Huffington Post on Tuesday that said the Treasury and Downing Street were at odds over when to publish the long-awaited integrated rail plan (IRP), which will set out the details of Britain’s future rail system including the new Leeds-Manchester route, a Downing Street spokesman said the government was “still committed” to the new rail line.

“We are getting on top of our priorities and investing in northern transport,” he said. “The integrated rail plan will set out how major rail projects including HS2 phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail will work together to deliver reliable rail services that passengers deserve.”

One Treasury figure said that Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Transport all broadly accepted the need to push ahead with the project — but the details were still up in the air.

“There needs to be a package of investment and needs to be agreement on what that looks like. Work is ongoing,” the person said. “But this is more an issue of bandwidth than any serious differences, it has been a while since the relevant cabinet ministers all met.”

Any disagreements on funding the new railway line are not about scale but are instead likely to be about the timeline and how soon spades can go in the ground. 

Many newly elected Tory MPs favour more spending, to make up for decades of under investment in their areas. One MP representing a northern constituency said that most of the newly elected Tories backed “sensible measures that allow us to deliver on our manifesto commitments”.

“Very few people are going around saying we have to do everything, colleagues know that we need to have clear blue water with Labour. We’re in a dangerous position if it looks like we’re going to outspend them,” they said.

Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website and a former Tory MP, said the current parliamentary party has a similar tension to the one at the top of government. “Their hearts are with Johnson but their heads are with Sunak,” he said.

“Most Tories are in parliament because they are Conservatives and that’s true of the red wall intake too. They believe in a smaller state and lower taxes. But these beliefs run up against their constituencies demanding more and more spending.”



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First unleveraged single-stock ETPs aim to woo retail investors

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Interested in ETFs?

Visit our ETF Hub for investor news and education, market updates and analysis and easy-to-use tools to help you select the right ETFs.

Leverage Shares is attempting to tap the boom in retail investing with the launch of the world’s first unleveraged physically backed single-stock exchange traded products. The ETPs provide investors in UK and elsewhere in Europe the rare opportunity to buy fractional shares.

Investors might be forgiven for thinking they are another version of the company’s leveraged or inverse ETPs that amplify gains and losses, reset every day and are generally viewed as unsuitable for retail investors.

However, the products promise no geared returns. Instead, they invest directly in the underlying company and, with their launch at $5 per share, their additional sterling and euro share classes, and their offer of big-name companies such as Tesla, they are being aimed straight at the European retail market.

Oktay Kavrak, product strategist at Leverage Shares, said it was unsurprising that the new products were not well understood at present. “Since we’ve only been making leveraged ETPs until now, I’d say this is expected,” he said.

But they have caught the attention of some industry participants.

Matt Brennan, head of passive portfolios at AJ Bell, one of the UK’s largest investment platforms, said that while no decision had yet been taken to add the products to the platform, AJ Bell was “actively monitoring them”.

“In general I am not usually a fan of ETPs, as they do add extra complexity, but to be fair to these products, they do seem to solve a few different problems,” Brennan said.

The products, which it started to roll out in May, effectively made it possible for UK and some other European investors to buy fractional shares in large overseas companies such as Tesla, Google and Amazon for about $5. That compares to about $600 for a single share in Tesla, $2,500 for Alphabet and nearly $3,500 for Amazon.

Leverage Shares’ latest launches last week added large Chinese companies such as Nio and JD.com to the family of unlevered single stock ETPs, which are listed on the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and Euronext Paris.

Kavrak said the ETPs were already available on the Interactive Brokers and Swissquote platforms and that Leverage Shares was in negotiation with other platforms including AJ Bell and Hargreaves Lansdown.

“I can understand the rationale for an unlevered approach to accessing single stocks that acts as a proxy fractional share — though clearly investors will need to pay an ongoing charge for the privilege — something they don’t need to do when owning the standard equity share,” said James McManus, chief investment officer at Nutmeg, a UK investment platform that offers low-cost investment portfolios.

“Clearly this is also an imperfect solution to an existing problem and points to the fact that many platforms have not solved the issue of fractional shares — unlike their US counterparts,” McManus added.

So-called fractional shares allow retail investors to own a part of a share, which can be useful if the share is expensive or if large share price movements result in the need for portfolio rebalancing. Nutmeg has developed a fractional share facility that it uses for its portfolio offerings.

Brennan pointed out that as well as enabling fractional shares the currency share classes eradicated the need for currency conversion charges, which could be high on some platforms.

Investing in the US companies via the Dublin-listed ETPs would also relieve investors of the need to fill in documentation to avoid penal tax rates, Brennan said, although he warned that potential investors should also remember that the European-listed ETPs often trade when the markets on which their underlying stocks are listed are closed.

He also pointed to the potential burden of costs that the ETPs would bring. These included the annual management fee of 0.15 per cent, but also the likelihood of wider bid-ask spreads than a more diversified ETF. He added that the ETPs might not track the underlying stock very efficiently if cash was not fully invested and dividends were not reinvested.

However, Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA said the products looked interesting and were relatively inexpensive for what they offered.

“I think a 0.15 per cent fee for the stock trackers is modest, given the access these provide, and we would expect trading costs will likely improve as more investors discover them. Most new exchange traded products incur limited volume initially,” he said.

He said they should not be confused with Leverage Shares’ other offerings. “There are leveraged versions, but the ones we’re talking about are as risky as owning Tesla or Amazon outright.”

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