Bring Tesla’s European HQ to Ballykelly on the banks of Foyle

STEVE BRADLEY wants billionaire Elon Musk to manufacture his new Model Y car in Co. Derry

Friday, 12th June 2020, 11:44 am
The new Tesla Model Y electric vehicle is hailed as the future of driving.

Concerns over climate change are driving a global shift towards electric vehicles (Evs) and no-one has done more to build a positive image of EVs than US billionaire Elon Musk.

He wants to establish a ‘Gigafactory’ in Europe for his Tesla company to manufacture its new Model Y car. And, as unlikely as it may sound, this offers a golden opportunity for the north west.

Tesla Gigafactories are huge facilities for researching, developing and manufacturing electric vehicles – requiring 4 million square foot of space (the equivalent of 52 football pitches). The company originally wanted to locate its European facility in the UK, but switched to Germany due to Brexit uncertainty. However, German courts have expressed unease at 227 acres of forest being cleared to accommodate the facility in Berlin, and the UK is back in focus again.

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Elon Musk.

The Department for International Trade is reportedly working with Tesla to identify a suitable location, and Elon Musk’s private jet was, according to reports, spotted flying into Gloucester last week.

The Government wants to make the UK a centre for electric vehicles and Tesla is the biggest catch in the EV world. One location believed to be under consideration is Gravity business park, near Bristol. It is a new 650 acre business campus with a focus on sustainability and innovation, close to the M5 motorway and with an on-site freight and passenger rail terminal. It is also a designated Enterprise Zone, offering relief on business rates and tax for five years. It certainly presents a strong case for consideration for any UK Tesla Gigafactory.

An alternative location on Derry’s doorstep may provide an even stronger case. The former Shackleton Barracks at Ballykelly is a huge site in a great location. At 621 acres, it is the equivalent of 353 football pitches - enough for seven Tesla Gigafactories. It is located 6 miles from an airport and 11 miles from a seaport, with the Derry-Belfast railway line running alongside too. The north west also has Europe’s best telecommunications links to North America, via the Project Kelvin telehouse at Fort George. There is unlikely to be any other site in Northern Ireland with the scale and infrastructure to out-do Ballykelly for a manufacturer requiring huge space. And the timing also offers an opportunity to tailor some planned public expenditure towards attracting and supporting such a facility there.

Derry’s City Deal includes significant funding for skills programmes and advanced manufacturing which could be tailored towards the needs of any major manufacturing facility attracted here. The Derry-Belfast rail line is also due to be relaid between Downhill and Eglinton. A new passenger halt at the Shackleton site, and doubling the track between Ballykelly and Foyle Port to enable rail freight, could also be part of the package to attract Tesla to the site at relatively low additional cost.

Balanced against these positive facets are three constraints facing the site. The first is traffic congestion along the A2 – though extending the dual carriageway 6 miles from Derry Airport to Ballykelly would address that, and could also be part of the package to clinch the investment.

A more significant challenge is the fact Foyle is the furthest port in the UK from continental Europe, which would have implications for shipping the completed vehicles. Balanced against that, however, would be a unique benefit Ballykelly can offer which nowhere in Britain can – and that is the fact we are still treated as part of the European Union when it comes to manufacturing. Not to mention the fact that Stormont also has the power to reduce Corporation Tax in NI (and planned to do so until recently).

The third challenge facing Ballykelly is the fact the site is now in private ownership. The Ministry of Defence donated it to the NI Executive in 2011, who sold it to Newry-based MJM Group for £1 million in 2016. That bargain price was no doubt in expectation that significant investment and jobs would follow. MJM’s proposal at the time was to use the former airfield for a new business fitting-out private planes - with 100 jobs promised initially, rising to over 1,000. A rail carriage fit-out business was also planned, plus an IT service centre and a solar farm. This impressive set of promises from a well-established company helped them see off other bidders for the site (one of which proposed locating film studios there). When the government announced a plan to create four hubs to manufacture components for expanding Heathrow Airport – one hub in each of the UK’s ‘nations’ - MJM proposed Ballykelly for the NI facility. However, in February the Court of Appeal ruled Heathrow expansion illegal for not factoring in the UK’s climate commitments and the government has said it won’t appeal the ruling.

So, more than four years after the sale of the Shackleton site, no jobs or businesses have been created there yet. A Tesla gigafactory would offer a huge opportunity to MJM – enabling them to create a high-value business campus on the site, whilst still providing enough room for the main business activities they wanted to host there themselves. It would be a win-win approach for everyone involved.

If the UK really will be the location for Tesla’s European gigafactory – and all indications are that it will – the Northern Ireland Assembly, Derry/Strabane and Causeway District councils must begin lobbying urgently and intensely for that facility to come to Ballykelly.

Not only do we have the economic justification, we also have the site, the infrastructure, the funding for skills and research, and the unique trump card of EU status.

It is hard to see any other site being able to compete with the overall package of benefits Ballykelly could offer Tesla. It is essential that those in power locally recognise the opportunity this presents for our region and pursue it doggedly before its too late.