Britishvolt: Lessons from Sweden on how gigafactory could transform Northumberland

Northvolt Ett, a gigafactory on the outskirts of Skellefteå, northern Sweden Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

As proposals to revitalise the struggling Britishvolt project take a step closer, what impact will the promised gigafactory have on the nearby towns of Blyth and Ashington? ITV Tyne Tees Northumberland correspondent Tom Barton has been to Sweden to see how a similar project has changed the face of the former mining town of Skellefteå.

  • Video report by Tom Barton

In the town of Skellefteå, a wooden skyscraper dominates the skyline. The 20-storey Sara Kulturhus is one of the world’s tallest wooden structures and houses five theatres, a 205 room hotel, a conference centre and three restaurants. It opened in 2021, the same year the production line at the nearby Northvolt Ett gigafactory delivered its first battery.

The timing is no coincidence. The Northvolt factory employs 1,600 people and has brought with it hundreds of millions of pounds of investment. In just a few years, that investment has transformed this small town in Swedish Lapland, just below the Arctic Circle.

The wooden Sara Kulturhus is a symbol of economic revitilisation. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Before construction began at Northvolt Ett, Skellefteå would have been recognisable to a visitor from the Northumberland towns of Blyth and Ashington. While the Northumberland towns once thrived on an economy underpinned by coal - or black gold - Skellefteå’s economy was built on the back of mining nuggets of actual gold.

But in Sweden, as in England, the mining industry had declined and the local economy had shrunk, and with it the town’s sense of pride.

According to Skellefteå’s deputy mayor, Evelina Fahlesson, “before Northvolt, we were a sleepy town. We were like this,” she leans forward submissively, “oh, I'm from Skellefteå. But today we are very proud to be from Skellefteå.”

Evelina Fahlesson is Skellefteå's deputy mayor Credit: Patrick Degerman

And the impact of the Northvolt gigafactory, which will eventually employ 4,000 people on site and thousands more in the supply chain, gives a real insight into what could be on offer if the Britishvolt project in Cambois, between Blyth and Ashington, is eventually built.

Conny Ölund, 38, has had plenty of jobs in his time: he’s worked in a call centre, as a carpenter, a computer technician, as a removals man. Now, he is training to start work operating the gigafactory’s utility distribution network. Alongside him at VUX, Skellefteå’s vocational college, is Paula Persson, 19. She’s joining Northvolt straight from school.

“It's fun to be a part of something new that has never been done. That's exciting,“ said Paula. “I think it's made a big difference. A lot of my friends from school have been hired at Northvolt.”

“It's a really big career step for everyone,” said Conny. “Northvolt is a place you can grow. I’ve got a steady workplace near my home. I have a family with two kids, and the work schedule goes well with my private life.”

  • Video report by Tom Barton

Across town, Julia Hedström has moved back to Skellefteå after leaving for Stockholm as a 19-year-old. She works for Northvolt while her husband Axel works for one of the company's suppliers.

The mother-of-two said: “I didn’t like Skellefteå then, it was a boring city."

She added: “I can't see that I can do this kind of job at another company here in Skellefteå.

“I want to have the same kind of childhood for my girls that I had. I want to stay in a safe and sound place with the kids.”

Julia Hedström returned to Skellefteå to take up a job at Northvolt. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

One of the signs of growth that is clear to see across Skellefteå is house building: 800 new homes were built in 2022.

“We haven't been building houses since the 1990s, so we have a lot to catch up”, said Anna Ersson, marketing manager of the housing developer Skebo. It’s challenging, she said, “because you don't have the time to be everywhere. Everything is happening all at once.”

Small businesses have also seen the change. Restaurateur Jon Oskar Arnason founded Bryggargatan on Skellefteå’s frozen riverside more than a decade ago. In the last few years business has transformed.

While weekends were usually busy, other days were quiet. However, since Northvolt started building in 2019, it has been good business every day of the week.

"It doesn’t matter if it is Saturday or Monday" he said. There were some wines where the restaurant would sell “one bottle" every month, due to the cost. Now, he sells them twice or three times a week.

Jon Oskar Arnason runs the Bryggargatan restaurant. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

So this is a town transformed. One that residents of Blyth or Ashington might look at, perhaps, with a touch of envy. Or, possibly, anticipation as Recharge Industries work to rescue the failed project. Either way, there are lessons for those developing the Cambois site in the aftermath of the collapse of Britishvolt.

“There have been many, many obstacles along the way that we have had to overcome”, said Fredrik Hedlund, a senior Northvolt executive in overall charge of the Skellefteå site.

He said the company has had to work hard to ensure that “the customers were there, making sure that the suppliers were there from an equipment and a construction point of view, and from a material point of view. So mobilising the eco-system was probably one of the key efforts that we did very, very early on to make this happen.”

Fredrik Hedlund is Senior Vice President, Cell Operations at Northvolt. Credit: Northvolt

He also said that building a strong relationship with the local community was key to their success. He added: “But looking at the Skellefteå municipality and their ability to try to foresee ‘what does this mean for a smaller community like Skellefteå to get this type of huge establishment.’ That connection we found very early on with these guys up here.”

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