Paul Newsome, Managing Director of Lotus Engineering  

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing a Chief Engineering Advisor?

I can only see advantages in appointing a Chief Engineering Advisor. I believe it is a necessary step to enhance the industry’s importance in government standing. There is a distinct need for help on long-term policy on engineering issues and there is often a worrying lack of engineering expertise in government and the civil service. Advice from engineering experts is often sought much too late in the policy making process and taking advice once policy has already been set in key areas such as transport, energy, water and waste, leads to missed opportunities and extra costs. It is difficult to accept that policy is made on such vital subjects as energy provision without any input from engineers. After all, the engineers are the ones who are trained to fit technological solutions to societal problems and they are the ones who actually have to carry out the policies decided on by the politicians and civil servants. The chief scientific and medical advisors do vital work and they cannot be expected to take on engineering advice as well as their own duties so the addition of a Chief Engineering Advisor is long overdue.

What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?

Without a shadow of a doubt there is an incredible drive in the automotive sector to produce low carbon vehicle technologies. We are not alone in recognising the industry must do more to address its environmental impact, through reducing CO2 emissions. We have a strong focus on all of the technologies that can play a part in cleaner vehicles and transport and a number of our research and development programmes are part-funded by the government. I welcome the government’s investment boost into green and low carbon vehicle projects; it is pleasing that they acknowledge the importance to the automotive industry of the research and development in environmentally friendly solutions, but it is also important to sustain this. The UK has the potential to become a global leader in the development of ultra-low carbon vehicles but it is important that the government show that the UK is an attractive option for inward investment by global automotive companies through promoting business confidence and its support for new technologies.

Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which have been a hindrance?

Firstly, there were welcome additions in the recently announced pre-budget report, with £160 million investment in low-carbon projects and £90 million in the European Investment Banks 2020 fund. We have also been lobbying the government for some time to increase investment in carbon capture projects, a necessary step for the use of renewable synthetic alcohol fuels, so we were pleased to see the government investment doubling in that area. Government ministers have identified transport as an important part of the drive towards a low-carbon economy and have developed some high aspirations in the role the UK is going to play. They should be applauded in their range of policies to support the development and commercialisation of lower carbon vehicles and the associated technologies, which are supporting the automotive sector to develop, and the consumer to accept, the need for alternative energy vehicles. There is still however a long way to go and this investment must not drop. We will come to a point in the future where almost everything we drive is electric, with some form of hybridisation, but that is still some way off so the government needs to maintain a focus on the development of these vehicles in the first instance. Although the government investment is welcome, it is only a small step forward and huge strides still need to be made to further enhance the drive for low-carbon vehicles.

Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to bolster them?

I believe the engineering sector as a whole is thriving. Lotus Engineering for example has seen a year-on-year sales increase for the past four years and in the last financial year, achieved a 23% increase in third party client work over the previous year. It has to be remembered that this is all in a very difficult trading economy. The UK economy is dependent on the success of engineering, science and technology so, to recover from the downturn, it is imperative that the industries continue their success. Certainly in the automotive sector we are seeing research and development investments grow rapidly as we produce the necessary green transport solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. I believe an important contribution to beat the economic downturn is to continue to invest in the technologies of the future and in the talented, visionary workforce of this vital industry.

From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?

I believe the biggest current challenge to the engineering sector is the continued need for low-carbon technology development. The future of a climate resilient Britain depends on the engineering sector’s response to the challenge. The current UK government has invested in the development of low-carbon technologies but a much more urgent approach is needed. Reaching the governments own low-carbon targets can be achieved by the private sector but only with significant government commitment.

I welcome the Climate Change Act, reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, with incremental targets in between, but I also feel there are huge strides to be made to reach that target. A green recovery is not just a fight for climate change but also a fight for jobs and a fight for new industry. But we need the tools to do the jobs. We need government financial support. A recent survey by the Renewable Energy Association, for example, found that more than three quarters of Britain’s green energy companies are now facing severe difficulties in accessing loans and investment. The role of the Treasury is therefore to design frameworks that provide the certainty and incentives to attract private sector investment in green technologies.

The fastest growing sector in the global economy is green goods and technologies and unfortunately, while this sector has grown exponentially over the past decade, Britain has failed to take advantage. According to official government figures, the UK has less than a 5% market share of this market; that’s less than France, Germany, Japan and the United States. Therefore, it is essential that green investment is provided for new growth and to help decarbonise our economy and compete for business around the world.

Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?

With the government now looking to bring the UK out of recession, there is a great deal of political interest in retooling the economy into a science based, high value set of industries that address major global and social issues while creating wealth and jobs. It is clear that engineering will form an integral part of this strategy and so now more than ever the sector must coordinate to promote and influence relevant policy. At a global level, it is imperative that the government stimulates investment in climate change adaption. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the relevant governments after the Copenhagen summit. Previous climate summits, at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997, had both promised greater emissions cuts but neither happened, but levels of awareness have changed so we are likely to see a stricter stance on low-carbon targets.

The EU has put in place a comprehensive policy framework, including the climate and energy targets for 2020 and I believe it is up to the UK government to deliver and provide the necessary investment to aid the engineering companies to develop low-carbon technologies. There are different possible pathways to a low carbon economy. Clearly, no single measure or technology will suffice, and the precise mix in each country will depend on the particular combination of political choices, market forces, resource availability and public acceptance. Therefore, I believe that policy should come from the EU, and technology research should be controlled by the respective countries. 

What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, the short and medium terms?

Innovation has always been at the heart of what we do and that is now needed more than ever as automotive technology faces up to new environmental challenges. There is a pressing need to slow the decline of fossil fuel reserves and reduce emissions and we are ideally placed to investigate improvements in the three complementary areas of engine efficiency: cleaner and efficient engines, hybrid and electric vehicles and alternative fuels. If in 30 years time 90% of what we are driving is electric, that is not because one manufacturer has done it, it is across the industry. This is an incredibly exciting time for the automotive sector and we are focusing now, possibly more than ever, on the future technologies applicable to the medium and longer terms. Investment into research and development at this stage is imperative and we will see ground-breaking benefits over the coming years. In terms of locality, in the shorter term, for continued growth, we are looking to China. In terms of engineering consultancy work, China is the biggest opportunity. The Chinese automotive and engineering market is increasing and has hardly noticed the downturn. We are working with a large number of clients in China, all looking to revolutionise the global automotive sector and with our success in developing vehicles, are the ideal organisation to aid them.

What is the best way to approve technological goals in the long term (i.e. with results more than five years off) Can and should government play a role here?

Absolutely the government needs to play a role. The long term challenge is to decarbonise transport and industry and government need to work together to ensure this happens. This is why the appointment of a Chief Engineering Advisor is vital to the long-term success of the sector. The UK engineering industry has the experience and expertise to achieve the government’s long-term low-carbon strategy, but with all the will in the world, increased and sustained green investment is needed to ensure this happens. UK emissions levels have increased since 1997 so now more than ever; the country is reliant on the engineering sector to lead the way to ensure there is a continuous development of environmentally friendly solutions. That said, although the automotive industry will continue to make best use of the energy efficiently, the government also need to consider the involvement of the fuel companies in the decarbinisation of transport. It is important that the government introduce a mechanism to change their behaviour on the energy they provide. Only then will we see a combined approach between the automotive industry and the fuel companies to achieve the same goal of a truly low carbon future.

To conclude, now more than ever we are focusing on long-term technologies that will come to fruition in maybe 10 – 15 years so with sustained investment now, we will see substantial benefits in the years ahead.

What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance  it?

In the UK, engineering has achieved great successes. Engineers create and share knowledge to provide the government, businesses and the public with fresh thinking and authoritive guidance. It is incredibly important that the industry not only prospers, but also grows so engineers can continue to come up with the solutions that will make a brighter future for everyone. Almost every aspect of the UK economy is underpinned by engineering, science and technology and it is vital that we do more to increase these skilled workers. I believe the main focus of this has to be in education. We have seen recently a 30% drop in engineering and manufacturing further education lecturers and a 17% drop in the number of Higher Education students going into production and manufacturing degrees, which is worrying bearing in mind how important the engineering sector is for the UK economy to recover. 55% of all UK exports are derived from engineering and manufacturing and a lack of new engineers could seriously jeopardize economic recovery. Government, businesses and education providers need to work together to develop a long-term strategy, detailing all major infrastructure projects for the foreseeable future and inspiring UK engineering with the confidence it needs to invest in new skills and technologies.