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Levelling-up…Lessons from Leiston and the Nuclear Sector

tom mcgarry

Tom McGarry

Head of Regional External Affairs and Development, Sizewell C

Following the Government sign-off and investment of £700 million in Sizewell C, Head of Regional External Affairs and Development at Sizewell C, Tom McGarry, writes about the role of Sizewell in providing low-carbon energy, increasing our energy independence and in the levelling up agenda.

Leiston-cum-Sizewell, on the Suffolk coast, is one of few parishes in the country to have two nuclear power stations within its borders. In fact, the inception of generating electricity through nuclear fission on the Suffolk coast came from the Town Council itself. In 1957, the Chair wrote to the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and asked for Sizewell to be considered as a site for a new nuclear power station. While that may come as a surprise, it is not that remarkable when one considers the history of the town.

A hub of British Enterprise

Leiston and its surroundings reflect an age of industry that sits within a landscape of tranquillity. In the late 1780s, a blacksmith named Richard Garrett set up a forge (Garretts) in the small hamlet. From the heat of that hearth, in the quiet agricultural east of ‘sleepy Suffolk’, a national giant of the industrial revolution awoke. By the middle of the next century, Garretts was producing steam and traction engines and Leiston was linked to the Ipswich-Lowestoft railway line. Hundreds of terraced houses were built for the growing workforce.

In 1851, Richard Garrett (the fourth of that name) sent his products and 300 employees to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. In the space of a lifetime, this small agricultural backwater had grown into a name synonymous with the best of British industry and enterprise. The town and its services grew, a diverse economy was established and a community thrived. With the change came more employment opportunities and in the meantime, the farms surrounding Leiston continued to be highly productive contributors to England’s eastern ‘bread-basket’. The rural and industrial both settled in the coastal landscape, providing employment, skilled labour, food and transportation.

The legacy of Sizewell A

The building of Sizewell A, from 1961 to 1966, provided more employment opportunities at a time when Garretts was responding to changes in the agricultural and transport sectors. The motivations of the Town Council representatives of the time were in step with the zeitgeist: post-war pragmatism on the need for homes and infrastructure and a desire for full employment and better pay. If there were protests over the aesthetic of pylons, the shouts and sloganeering would only have fallen on the ears of people who did not take electricity generation for granted. There certainly was concern and reticence over the construction of Sizewell A itself, but the supportive silent majority ‘let them get on with it’. Indeed, the 1961 August bank holiday saw 3,000 visitors watch the construction process from an observation platform that was built specially to allow the public to see the site.

In 1966, Sizewell A began four decades of generating electricity and training and employing generations of local people. The diversity of the economy that Sizewell and the energy sector offered was a strength and an opportunity. Several young men and women in Suffolk would never have had the chance to become engineers without the arrival of the energy sector. It did not prevent local people from becoming hoteliers, farmers, business owners, entrepreneurs, fishermen, cleaners, teachers, doctors and nurses. However, it did introduce new skills, investment and wealth to the Heritage Coast.

Those lessons from over half a century ago resonate today as we consider the role that major infrastructure can play in the levelling up agenda. Just as Leiston Town Council in the 1950s was keen to open the town and its people to new opportunities in upskilling and diversity in employment, East Anglia now has the chance to seize upon the investment that the energy sector presents to the Suffolk and Norfolk coast.

Sizewell C is the proposed new power station and will be built to the north of Sizewell B. Recently approved for construction, by the peak build period later this decade, over 7,000 people will be on-site working to create a plant which will generate enough low carbon electricity for six million homes.  What’s more, the power station will be a catalyst for new technologies such as hydrogen and direct air capture, offering an opportunity for new skills to be honed in the local area.

Sizewell C, Nuclear Power and Levelling Up

Over 70% of the supply chain required to build Sizewell C will be British. This means that the project will play a role in stimulating economic activity in regions beyond the east of England. This is reflective of the supply chain of Hinkley Point C in Somerset, the sister project to Sizewell C, which has so far been worth millions of pounds in contracts to Wales, the North East, the North West and East Anglia itself.

At a local level, Sizewell C really promises to help level up. The perception of Suffolk as a ‘rich county full of second homes and money’ does not reflect the more uncomfortable reality. There is a gap in life expectancy of ten years between East Suffolk’s least and most affluent wards. A fifth of the district’s population lives in the most deprived 30% of wards nationally and the salaries, in general, are well below the national average (in Lowestoft, just up the coast from Sizewell, the average income is 17% lower than the rest of East Anglia).

One of the strengths of the Sizewell C proposals lay in a socioeconomic strategy that is determinedly focused on targeting those wards of deprivation and on breaking the cycle of worklessness. A major investment in skills and training has been committed to and third-sector partners are working with the project to identify those in need and to provide them with the chance to enter the labour market. Furthermore, young people who would otherwise have to leave their home county to find well-paid, skilled work will now gain the opportunities to build successful careers at home.

There is a recognition that the country needs to urgently increase the supply of low-carbon electricity to meet the challenges of climate change, as well as increase our energy security and decrease our reliance on the price volatility of gas imports. Alongside the environmental and cost of living imperative, there is the equally important goal of levelling up communities across the country. That is what major infrastructure, and particularly Sizewell C, will deliver.

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