Alan Mak: Britain should champion a new Five Eyes critical minerals reserve system

30 Jun

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The on-going trade dispute between the US and China has put the spotlight on so-called “critical minerals”. We in Britain cannot afford to be passive observers. Instead, we should take an active interest in this key strategic and economic issue, and play a leading role in safeguarding access to critical minerals, both for ourselves and our Five Eyes allies. Ensuring our scientists, manufacturers and technology businesses have a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals is vital for Britain’s leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Critical minerals consist of the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with names such as promethium and scandium, plus other economically valuable but relatively rare minerals such as lithium and cobalt (used in batteries), tungsten (used in defence products including missiles), bauxite (the source of aluminium) and graphite (key to battery production).

The REEs have unique magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that no other elements have, which means they are often non-substitutable. Whilst used only in small quantities, they are key components in a wide range of consumer products from mobile phones, laptops and TVs, and have widespread defence applications in jet engines, satellites, lasers and missiles.

Although they are more abundant than their name implies, REEs and critical minerals are difficult and costly to mine and process. Converting critical minerals embedded in rocks from under the Earth’s crust to separated elements is a complex and costly process which often involves the use of highly concentrated acids and radiation.

China hosts most of the world’s processing capacity and supplied 80 percentemploy of the REEs imported by the US from 2014 to 2017. On average, China has accounted for more than 90 pe cent of the global production and supply of rare earths during the past decade, according to the US Geological Survey.

By contrast, the US has only one rare earth mining facility, and currently ships its mined tonnage to China for processing. Lynas Corporation, based in Australia, is the world’s only significant rare earths producer outside China. Other critical minerals are similarly concentrated in a small number of producer nations. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for around 90 per cent of the world’s cobalt production in 2018, whilst Guinea dominates bauxite, with around 35 per cent of the world’s reserves.

As globalisation and industrialisation accelerate around the world, critical minerals have become a highly sought-after resource for the high-technology, low-carbon and defence industries. They will play a vital role in Britain’s future plans for economic growth, innovation and green industrialisation, especially as we renew and expand our manufacturing base in the wake of Coronavirus.

Given the national strategic and economic importance of critical minerals, the UK needs to act now and lead efforts to protect our national supply for the future. Neither we nor our Five Eyes allies can remain reliant on one producer for anything, including critical minerals. Here are four steps we should take:

Establish a New Five Eyes critical minerals reserve stockpile

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK has been in existence since 1941 and provides the perfect foundation on which we should develop a new critical minerals reserve that would end our collective vulnerability of supply.

The reserve would consist of inter-connected physical national stockpiles of critical minerals, and then extend to become a processing chain that all partners could draw on. The US already maintains stockpiles, and creating others including in Britain would lead to new jobs. The UK is never going to become resource independent, but through international co-operation we can diversify supply and refine, through innovation, the processing of these elements.

Use our international aid budget to secure critical minerals supplies

As the Foreign Office and DFID merge, the UK can align its development goals alongside diplomatic priorities. We should deploy our international aid to unleash the untapped supply of critical minerals in developing countries, effectively funding the start-up of new critical mineral mines and processing plants. This would enhance our supply of these elements and create jobs, transforming communities around the globe through trade, not just aid. China has already implemented a similar strategy in Africa, for example providing Guinea with a $20 billion loan to develop the country’s mining sector.

Create a new National Critical Minerals Council

The Government should establish a new National Council composed of metallurgists, scientists and foreign policy experts to monitor global trends in critical minerals, and advise the Government on rare earths and its strategic stockpile. Given the national security and defence procurement implications, the National Council’s establishment would help to keep this issue at the forefront of future policymaking.

Become the world’s greenest stockpiler by incentivising private sector involvement in critical minerals processing

The Government should provide funding for greater research into how we can improve the processing chain of critical minerals with a focus on how we can tighten environmental controls in this sector internationally.

The UK should establish itself as the world’s “greenest stockpiler” of critical minerals by offering incentives that encourage private sector investment in recycling processes and reward companies that contribute to the UK stockpile. We need more facilities like the University of Birmingham’s Recycling Plant at Tyseley Energy Park, which is pioneering new techniques that are transforming the recycling of critical minerals such as neodymium, which is commonly found in hard disk drives.

The Coronavirus pandemic has taught us the importance of supply chain security, whether for PPE or critical minerals. With our reputation for scientific excellence, global alliances and diplomatic networks, we can help ourselves and our allies strengthen our access to the key minerals that will power our economic growth and innovation potential for decades to come.

This is the first in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.

Andy Street: Our blueprint setting out the economic ambitions of the West Midlands

30 Jun

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Last week saw the launch of a blueprint setting out the post-Coronavirus economic ambitions of the West Midlands. As a manufacturing heartland, where draftsmen drew up plans for everything from steam engines to Spitfires, blueprints are in our blood. They illuminate our history. This intentionally ambitious £3.2 billion business case draws a clear trajectory to our region’s future.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to attract as much investment as possible. Rishi Sunak’s bold and decisive actions – notably through the furlough scheme – have provided unprecedented economic support for jobs during lockdown. Now, demands on the public purse are high. All investment must be fully justified, diligently used and – crucially – deliver real results. Every penny counts.

Our region was the UK’s fastest growing outside the capital until Covid-19 struck, and as a hotbed of export, manufacturing, construction and professional services, we play a key role in the UK’s economic success. This new blueprint lays out a powerful business case for how continued investment can spark rapid and sustained recovery, not only for us here but for UK PLC.

Our ambition is deliberate because the stakes are high. Research suggests we could be hit harder than most by the lockdown. When coronavirus struck, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position, with record employment figures and productivity growth well ahead of the national rate. However, our economic mix – dependence on manufacturing and business tourism, as well as a significant contribution from universities – leaves us vulnerable.

By following the blueprint we have drawn up, the Government can demonstrate its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ by backing the people of the West Midlands to deliver.

We need to do everything we can to get back on our feet quickly and return to the levels of success we were enjoying before the outbreak hit. That means driving a rapid economic recovery, safeguarding more than 135,000 jobs while building thousands of new homes. It also means learning the lessons of the financial crash of 2008/09, and listening to business.

Investment is crucial. However, while we need significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – this is broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, which supported strong economic success here.

Our business plan is to build on our success and on the investment we have already attracted from Government, while leveraging much more private and public sector investment locally, including from our universities.

The blueprint sets out a business case for investments, while outlining the economic benefits they would deliver. For example, it directly supports our automotive sector by harnessing clean technology and electrification. A major investment package, including £250 million towards a Gigafactory producing state-of-the-art batteries, will unlock 51,700 green jobs.

The building of HS2, next year’s Coventry City of Culture festivities and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games present opportunities to create jobs for local people. By accelerating major infrastructure investment and supporting the recovery of the tourism and cultural sector we can unlock 33,000 jobs.

Then there is the West Midlands’ growing reputation as a hotbed for health research. By investing in healthcare innovation we can protect 3,200 jobs, while improving the health of our population.

Improving transport, housing and digital infrastructure will play a key part in a rapid recovery, while laying the foundations for future economic strength. We can build better transport and digital links to drive productivity and create thousands of jobs in construction. Schemes include extending rail, metro and bus routes, with cash for enhanced digital connectivity and to accelerate fibre connectivity in deprived areas. Reopening long-closed railway stations will better connect people to employment opportunities, attract investment into once-isolated areas and improve productivity.

The West Midlands has pioneered the regeneration of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. We even have our own regional definition of ‘affordable housing’ applied at planning level by the West Midlands Combined Authority. We want to build 35,000 new homes – 15,000 of which will be affordable – with a focus on housing key workers. Plans include using a £200m investment package to regenerate derelict eyesores and £24 million for a new National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, which will be a centre of excellence for land reclamation.

Investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future aims to help get them back into work. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and work experience, retraining 20,000 workers for in-demand sectors such as health and social care, logistics and business services, and upskilling 24,000 for jobs for the future.

Finally, we want to back the region’s businesses with support schemes – including helping them navigate their way through the post-lockdown world – creating or safeguarding 43,900 jobs.

This ambitious business case is based on our region’s experiences not only of recovering from the last downturn, but on the successes of the last three years. The blueprint has been developed as a team effort between the region’s local enterprise partnerships, universities, business groups and local authorities.  Crucially, some of our biggest employers have also shared their insights about how the region can play its part in securing a strong national recovery, putting central investment to good use.

For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy.