Selling the family greenery

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The bank has invested in low-energy street lighting projects and plants that generate energy from waste

A memorial for Lachlan Macquarie remains a little piece of Scotland which is forever Australia. It is on the isle of Mull, near his birthplace on the tiny island of Ulva, on the MacQuarrie clanlands.

The soldier turned colonial governor is known to some as "the father of Australia", making many of the key moves that helped it turn from penal colony to a new country.

One of his achievements was to bring some order to monetary matters in New South Wales during the years 1810 to 1821.

His name has since been attached to lots around Sydney, including the country's biggest investment bank. It's in that guise that Macquarie is coming back to Scotland, as the new owner of the Green Investment Bank (GIB).

The new acquisition is not a huge presence at its office next to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It employs 50 people at its headquarters in the Scottish capital and 85 more at its London office.

But it's built up some scale in the business of funding green projects. They aren't all wind farms. Indeed, it hasn't been backing onshore wind farms. It recently signed up £800m towards an offshore array.

But much of the lending in the four-and-a-half years since the coalition government set it up has been in the less obvious, less glamorous end of low-carbon investment: plants generating energy from waste in Edinburgh and Kent, low energy street lighting in Glasgow, Stirling, Kent and Southend, and a bio-burner for the Tomatin distillery near Inverness.

It's added up to £800m per year in commitments, drawing in some private partners in joint ventures. The UK government committed £1.5bn to its funds.

Ministers claim now to have made a profit. The Treasury will pull in £1.7bn as part of the £2.3bn valuation placed on GIB. But it's not that easy to be sure how big a profit it might be.

Image source, Getty Images

So what is its future with Macquarie? I'm told the commitment to an Edinburgh base remains strong.

Amid much due diligence, checking out the loan book and getting a handle on some unusual and highly-regulated infrastructure, the new buyers have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of green energy specialists employed in the Edinburgh team.

They are choosing not to call the Edinburgh office a headquarters. That's in Sydney.

But the Australians have pledged to keep it, to expand it with more people expert in managing renewable energy assets and to make it the "joint beating heart" of GIB, alongside the London office.

'Vampire kangaroo'

Macquarie got to this point through 25 years of investing in infrastructure. It is a significant player in airports, communications, roads and power plants, so it can claim to have some expertise in dealing with highly regulated assets.

It has also been pushing into energy assets over the past six or so years. That includes a big investment in the roll-out of smart meters, standing behind Britain's big utilities.

The green investments it intends to fold into the GIB portfolio amount to around a third of those the GIB already has.

But its track record has brought criticism from some opposition MPs, concerned at the possibility of a big asset stripping programme. Among campaigning watchdogs, Greenpeace cites Macquarie's description as "the vampire kangaroo".

Under pressure from such campaigners and critics of the sell-off, the UK government and the GIB board have secured what they believe are significant assurances - GIB will maintain its brand and bases in the two capitals, with a promise to invest £3bn over the next three years.

There is also a trustee company, with five trustees tasked with ensuring that GIB sticks to its green mission.

Industrial strategy

Having set up an investment bank, intended to plug gaps in the financing of relatively new technologies, the UK government says it has turned a profit, and is now better off in the private sector.

But have ministers abandoned an opportunity to turn a corner on Britain's investment shortfalls in major infrastructure?

That was the reason GIB was set up. Around the same time, the coalition government also set up the British Business Bank.

It has been funded through the Treasury to support funding where banks need some reassurance of spread risk, or where the banks fear to tread.

According to the Industrial Strategy green paper, published since Theresa May became prime minister and now nearing the end of a consultation, the British Business Bank has been a success.

It is part of the strategy, by helping the government plug gaps in venture capital funding and access to finance, particularly outside the south-east of England.

Yet there is no mention of the Green Investment Bank and whether it showed the way to further success in plugging funding gaps.

There may be more mention of it before 8 June, because Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto for the Labour Party's election campaign is likely to promise a national investment bank, and regional investment banks to drive growth outside London and the south-east.

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