The first sign of green shoots?


In a promising announcement for the UK economy, energy firm Centrica says it will create 2,600 jobs this year and is just one of several major companies to this morning reveal plans to boost employment in Britain.

Bosses from from Shell, Toyota Jaguar Land Rover, Microsoft and engineering consultancy Amec  – as well as Tesco and Asda – are among those business leaders meeting the Prime Minister today.

David Cameron wants to discuss what more the government can do to help companies to create new jobs, building on the seeds of economic recovery that in the last six months, Downing Street says, led to the creation of 300,000 jobs.

What and where these jobs are is far more important than the headline figures. More supermarket positions in the southeast won’t be of much comfort to those in some parts of the defence industry who are still bracing themselves for more redundancies, for example.

But the announcement from Centrica is a positive start. The firm, which owns British Gas, has promised over 1,000 jobs in renewables, smart metering and insulation and in 2012 is planning to recruit a further 1,400 ‘green collar’ jobs.

The automotive industry is also feeling optimistic this morning, celebrating a year-on-year rise in US car sales at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The ‘Big Three’ carmakers – Chrysler, Ford and GM – said an end-of-year surge helped annual sales rise by 11 per cent in 2010 to around 11.6 million vehicles, following an all-time-low in the previous year. This year they hope to sell more than 13 million.

But perhaps more interesting is the emphasis many manufacturers are placing on battery-powered and hybrid cars, and many are already calling 2011 “the year of the EV”.

Ford has announced plans to compete with the likes of GM and Toyota and launch its first production plug-in hybrid car, in 2012 in North America and 2013 in Europe.

Called the C-MAX Energi, the range-extended vehicle will be able to travel 500 miles on a full battery charge and a tank of petrol – Ford claims this is more than any other plug-in or extended-range vehicle.

In Europe there is also fuss over a new electric vehicle, but details weren’t revealed at a motorshow. Instead, Renault says a spy network has stolen secrets about its EV programme being undertaken in partnership with Nissan.

The French company will file charges against three suspected executives and suspicion has fallen on Chinese companies as being behind the operation, but Renault has so far been unable to confirm this.

Britain also has its own automotive story this week, as the motorsport industry gears up for the fifth European Cleaner Racing Conference on Wednesday at the Birmingham NEC.

Industry chair of the Automotive Council Richard Parry-Jones and former science minister and racing enthusiast Lord Drayson will deliver keynote speeches on how the petrol-heavy world of motorsport is helping encourage innovation in low-carbon technology.

To prove it to the doubters the industry is even launching a new auto-racing series called enviroSportscar that will showcase road-going concept cars with minimal emissions.

The open-competition series could help prove the real-world performance of battery, hydrogen and biofuel-driven cars – though I’m not sure even an F1-style series would make EVs sexy in most people’s eyes.