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£2.6bn battery plant's future questioned by union

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The resignation of the chairman of a firm which wants to build a £2.6bn electric vehicle battery gigaplant in the UK has led to a union boss expressing concerns over its “ability to deliver on their plans”.

Lars Carlstrom, 55, announced he was stepping down from the start-up company Britishvolt after it emerged he was convicted for tax fraud in Sweden more than 20 years ago.

Following inquiries by the PA News agency, he said he was resigning as he did not want to become a “distraction”.

The firm had announced last week that it planned to build a major factory in Blyth, Northumberland, to supply batteries for electric vehicles, creating 3,000 jobs directly and another 5,000 indirectly. Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed this news during a visit to the Tory-held constituency on Friday.

However, Carlstrom’s decision to step down has led the Unite union to express “concerns” about the Britishvolt plans, while restating hopes that the start-up would succeed.

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary, Unite, said: “The resignation of Britishvolt’s chairman over a tax fraud conviction adds to Unite’s concerns over the company’s ability to deliver on their plans.

“Britishvolt still need to find investors to meet a significant shortfall in finance for the £2.6bn project and secure a strategic partner with technical and manufacturing expertise.

“Of course Unite very much hopes Britishvolt will be successful, not just with its plans for the North East, but in proposals for gigafactories and other associated developments across the UK to meet growing demand for batteries, as we green and clean our towns and cities.”

The union boss said these latter plans would require significant Government funding.

Britishvolt said Peter Rolton has been appointed interim chairman in Cartstrom's absence. The company said that Rolton, chairman of the Rolton Group, has a long track record of delivering large-scale industrial projects and has been a Government adviser on renewable energy projects.

In a statement, the firm said: “Britishvolt remains firmly on track in every way to deliver its first world-class lithium-ion batteries at the end of 2023. It is set to begin construction of the gigaplant in Summer 2021.”

Britishvolt reportedly hopes it can raise money in a stock market listing, as well as a Government grant, to fund the multibillion-pound project. Of concern to some people is the fact that the company had previously said it would build its gigaplant in South Wales, a decision it subsequently reversed.

Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne elected Mayor, declined to comment on Mr Carlstrom’s resignation. In a Facebook post at the weekend, he wrote: “Despite all the headlines and spin, this deal is not over the line. In fact, this is still in very early stages.

“It’s a growth sector, and a gigafactory will be built somewhere in Europe, by someone, that’s 100 per cent certain. The trick is to make it happen here.

“We could still lose it, just as Bro Tathan in South Wales did. Investors don’t stump up over a billion quid unless everything is in place.”

The mayor called Britishvolt a “serious outfit, with a heavyweight team”, adding, “This project is immense and the timescales are very ambitious. It will need to be a team effort.”

In the late 1990s, Carlstrom was sentenced to eight months in prison and handed a four-year trading ban for tax fraud. This was later reduced by a higher court to a conditional sentence and 60 hours community service.

He was later accused of acting negligently by Sweden’s tax authority over a separate unpaid tax bill for one of his companies in 2011. The Swede also has dubious links to Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov, the former Portsmouth FC owner, who skipped English bail five years ago.

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