Dominic Lawson: Don’t let’s fall for all these ‘green’ credentials

It's not clear why the British tax-payer should throw money in Mr Deripaska's cap
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The Independent Online

White Van man needs no introduction. Now, meet Green Van man. He will drive very slowly and considerately, in his vegan hemp string vest and sandals. This, presumably, will be the target market of LDV, the loss-making van company whose boss yesterday told the listeners of the BBC’s Today programme that it would transform itself into a “green” electric van manufacturer.

It does not take long to work out why this Russian-owned relic of the old British Leyland truck business has gone all ecological. When Lord Mandelson last month set out his terms for a “£2.3bn package” of assistance for the automotive industry, he declared that no support would be given to any proposition unless it was something which would “enable us to green (sic) Britain’s economic recovery.” Cynics might suppose that this was a clever way of ensuring that no car maker got any support at all, but, as we know, when there’s a Government grant to be had, it doesn’t take long for business to work out a way of getting it.

LDV’s need is acute. It has been losing money for years, under a succession of owners, the latest of whom is the Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. I was going to say Russia’s richest oligarch, but Mr Deripaska has had a bad credit crunch and is now down to his last few billions. Doubtless this is a great sadness for him and his immediate circle, but it is not immediately clear why the British tax-payer should be moved to throw money in his cap.

It is true that there are 850 people employed at LDV’s Birmingham plant, but then there are 1,100 people employed at the Southampton plant which manufactures the Ford Transit van, LDV’s main competitor. Because of the steep drop in the sale of all vans, Ford has already cut one of its two shifts at that plant, and the local MP, Sandra Gidley, has written unavailingly to the Chancellor asking him to give “emergency aid” for the factory. Moreover, Ford has been working on an “electrification project” for some time, and the electric-battery version of its van, the Ford Transit Connect, is scheduled to go on sale next year.

Now, if you were a worker at Ford Transit’s Southampton plant, you might be less than enthusiastic about £30m of tax payers’ money – which is what LDV is asking for as an emergency “loan” – going to a direct rival. Naturally the Unite union wants the Government to hand out millions to every car plant in the UK – but the unavoidable fact is that across the world there is a massive over-capacity in vehicle manufacturing, which has nothing whatever to do with the credit crunch.

In fact, absurdly easy credit for car purchases was the desperate last fling of manufacturers to shift vast stocks of cars which they had no hope of selling by conventional means. Erik Eberhardson, the chairman of Deripaska’s automotive business, told the BBC that “unfortunately since [LDV] is not producing, it is not making enough revenue to cover its costs”.

Even allowing for the fact that English is not Mr Eberhardson’s first language, this does seem to miss the point. Nobody ever made revenues by producing things: that only comes from selling them, an altogether trickier proposition. Therefore the question arises, if we are to take Mr Eberhardson at his word, would the “Green” version of its Maxus van – hitherto available only in white – have a chance of capturing the hearts of the driving public?

When the Maxus was launched two years ago, in conventional internal combustion engine mode, it was supposed to be the rebirth of the old Leyland brand. It certainly won a lot of good publicity, being named Britain’s “All New Van of the Year” (the clear winner in a field of one).

In the interests of research, I have been looking at online user-reviews of the Maxus, and while there are indeed some reports apparently from satisfied customers, there are also reviews which might give the civil servants at the Department for Business some pause for thought, viz: “I buy a new van every 2 to 3 years. After owning 3 Ford Transits, I Vauxhall Movano and 2 Fiat Ducatos, I decided to buy the all new van of the year, the LDV Maxus. Well, it’s the worst van I’ve ever owned. My first bit of trouble was that the engine started making a funny noise when the aircon came on, then the van stopped locking, so I booked it in… since then the aircon has been OK, the van still doesn’t lock, the radiator filter dropped off, the cup holder dropped off, the plastic wheel cover dropped off, the lock on the back doors dropped off, the weld on the spare wheel holder broke, so that dropped off, the battery cover dropped off….”. After a further litany of complaints the reviewer concludes by saying, “Just waiting for my 2 and a half years to be up, so I can part-ex it for a tenner”.

Obviously the “Green” electric LDV Maxus will be different. The difference is that it will have a top speed of 55mph and a range of 85 miles. That, at least, is what the company’s website gives as the specifications “based on the current prototype”. Add to that the many hours it takes to recharge an electric car battery and you get a pretty good picture of why the electric vehicle is still considered more suited to milk floats and golf carts, even after decades of research and development.

The French Government, like our own, has an ecologically driven enthusiasm for the idea of creating an electric car industry, which is why some months ago President Sarkozy commissioned a report into the prospects of mass-market electric cars, presumably to be built by Renault or Citroen. The report did not come up with the answers M Sarkozy wanted, so was never published. According to the Financial Times, it concluded that “the traditional combustion engine still offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner vehicles simply by improving the performance and efficiency of traditional engines and limiting the top speed to 170 km\hr…The overall cost of an all-electric car remains unviable at around double that of a conventional vehicle. Battery technology is still unsatisfactory, severely limiting performance in terms of range and speed. The electricity supply for these batteries would continue to come from mostly fossil sources.”

Actually, in France one would imagine that most of the electricity supply would be nuclear and therefore not fossil fuel-based, but in this country it would be largely coal, and overwhelmingly so in the US, as it would be in China. While it’s true that electric cars are gloriously quiet, which is an undoubted blessing, the notion that they would not contribute to greenhouse gases is absurd.

Fortunately, Lord Mandelson does not need to worry about such technicalities in this case. Since he is known to have been an overnight guest on Mr Deripaska’s floating gin-palace offshore Corfu last summer, it is politically impossible for the British Government to give the Russian’s business the soft loan it seeks. Still, there’s always Mr Putin, although somehow he doesn’t strike me as the Green Van man type.