Billionaire Bamford family at the heart of Boris Johnson's hydrogen push

British prime minister has lauded JCB's hydrogen investment, while the Bamford family's transport ambitions also receive government backing

Less than a day before UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted the Global Investment Summit, he posed for pictures in front of a gleaming hydrogen-powered JCB digger opposite Westminster Abbey.

While the digger was important as it reflected Britain’s green ambitions to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and will be on display at the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the person standing next to Mr Johnson, Lord Anthony Bamford, was even more important.

The manufacturing tycoon, who is worth about £4.6 billion, is not only the owner of the construction equipment company but also a Conservative Party donor, who has given about £14 million ($19.28m) in cash and gifts to the Tories since 2001.

The photocall gave Mr Johnson a chance to show off innovative Britain at a time when the world’s eyes were firmly on the UK ahead of the GIS and Cop26.

It also gave JCB the perfect platform to unveil its £100m investment in zero-emission hydrogen engines to power its machinery.

The prototype hydrogen-powered digger, which had been transported 150 miles (241km) from its testing ground in Staffordshire, central England, provided the ideal prop to push the case for the renewable energy source.

“Our sort of machinery will need to be powered by something other than fossil fuels,” Mr Bamford, whose father, Joseph Bamford, founded the company in 1945, said at the event where he lauded hydrogen as the best solution for powering larger machines.

JCB already has 100 engineers working on the hydrogen engines as it strives to deliver the first machines to customers by the end of next year.

“We make machines that are powered by diesel, so we have to find a solution and we are doing something about it now,” Mr Bamford said.

The photocall was not only an indication of Britain’s backing for hydrogen, it was also another demonstration of the cosy relationship between Mr Johnson, 57, and Mr Bamford, 75.

This was highlighted again a day later at the GIS itself, when Mr Johnson gave his benefactor’s project a plug during his official speech.

“I think hydrogen is part of the solution,” Mr Johnson told the 200 business leaders, and A-list investors, including Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, at the event.

“Because I saw a JCB digger recently that ran on hydrogen and to drive a digger or a [lorry] or to hurl a massive passenger plane down a runway you need what [British motoring journalist and broadcaster] Jeremy Clarkson used to call grunt. And hydrogen provides that grunt. We are making big bets on hydrogen, on solar and hydro, and yes, of course, on nuclear as well.”

The blatant JCB promotion did not go unnoticed. Mr Bamford’s generosity towards the Conservative Party is well documented and includes dozens of helicopter and private jet flights, which critics argue deliver huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Mr Johnson himself has taken advantage of Mr Bamford’s generosity for his own campaigning, including a trip to the north-east of England in a Gulfstream 650 business jet from Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, south-east England, in the run-up to the May local elections.

The same month, the prime minister took a trip in a Bamford-registered helicopter for a 50-minute flight from London to Wolverhampton, central England, for a separate campaign trip.

Brexit-supporter Mr Bamford also boosted Mr Johnson’s campaign to exit the EU, letting him get behind the wheel of a JCB digger with “Get Brexit Done” written on the bucket.

Even before Mr Johnson became leader of the Conservatives, he was paid £10,000 by JCB in January 2019, a few days before he delivered a Brexit-themed speech that included praise for the company’s innovative stance.

Criticism over the tight relationship between the Bamford family and Mr Johnson has also been lobbed at Mr Bamford’s son Jo, the founder and chairman of Ryze Hydrogen, a company that invests in plants that make fuel cells to power buses.

Like his brother George, a luxury watchmaker, and sister Alice, a horse breeder, Jo remains on the board of JCB, which employs 10,000 people. He worked for the family business for 14 years before striking out on his own a few years ago.

He owns Ryze, a hydrogen producer that wants to build a network of plants. In 2019, he rescued failed company Wrightbus, a Northern Ireland bus maker that delivered the world’s first double-decker hydrogen bus in Aberdeen, Scotland, last year.

07/10/20
L-R Coucillor Douglas Lumsden, Councillor Jenny Laing, Jo Bamford, Wrightbus owner and Executive Chairman,David Phillips, Operations Director for First Aberdeen.

The world’s first hydrogen-powered double decker bus was revealed today in Aberdeen which showcases the city as a trailblazer in hydrogen technologies.The arrival of the first bus in the city underlines the city’s role as the energy capital of Europe and shows its commitment to the transition of green energy from oil and gas as part of the Net Zero Vision.The hydrogen double deckers will be spotted around the city for several weeks during a period of final testing along with training for drivers, with the buses expected to be in service next month.
The buses are as efficient as electric equivalents, with refuelling taking less than 10 minutes and offering a greater range. Water is the only emission from the vehicles which reduces carbon emissions and the new buses continues to contribute to the city’s commitment to tackling air pollution.

A green hydrogen double-decker developed by Wrightbus also featured at the photocall event last week attended by Mr Johnson ahead of the GIS.

Like his father, Jo Bamford – who describes himself as a “green entrepreneur” – is a big backer of hydrogen as a future source of energy because it does not produce carbon dioxide when burnt.

At a recent seminar hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, he insisted that batteries were not the only solution for decarbonising the transport sector, with hydrogen described as the best option.

Quote
Hydrogen is something we should really be looking at because we have lots of wind and lots of water.
Jo Bamford

“Hydrogen is something we should really be looking at because we have lots of wind and lots of water,” he told delegates attending the online session.

Jo Bamford certainly has a vested interest in pushing the energy source.

His delivery of the double-decker hydrogen bus was part of an £8.3m project between his company and Aberdeen to run one of the largest fleets of hydrogen buses.

Earlier this year, he lobbied for £500m in taxpayers’ cash to finance a 3,000-strong fleet of hydrogen buses produced by companies such as his.

In March, UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said Wrightbus had been awarded an £11.2m grant to develop new hydrogen technology.

Last month, Jo Bamford also unveiled a £1bn investment fund called HyCap to finance hydrogen projects with private equity firm Vedra Partners, which invests the money of wealthy families.

Jo Bamford has donated more than £70,000 to the Conservative Party since 2019, something the Unlock Democracy campaign group is keen to clamp down on.

Tom Brake, director of the group has called for cap of £5,000 a year on donations to prevent “cash for access” concerns.

“Questions will be asked” if donors continue to be allowed to make sizeable donations and they will always be about “whether grants or contracts were won fair and square or whether cash for access and influence came into play”, Mr Brake said.

While the Bamfords have not done anything wrong, Jo, like his father, has a track record of working closely with top Tories.

A year ago, George Freeman, the new energy minister, was rapped for entering into a contract to offer “strategic advice” to Ryze Hydrogen.

The contract was later scrapped and money returned after Mr Freeman was reported for breaching the ministerial code because he failed to inform a Parliamentary watchdog.

Meanwhile, Julian Smith, the former chief whip, is a paid adviser for Ryze, earning a reported £60,000.

Even Anthony Bamford’s wife and Jo Bamford's mother, Lady Carole Bamford, hit the headlines over links between her Daylesford Organic farming and lifestyle business with Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie.

The Johnsons received £27,000 worth of organic takeaways from the company during lockdown, which was reportedly supplied at “cost price”, reducing the bill to £18,900.

The deliveries, which included breakfast, lunch and dinner, were paid for by Mr Johnson, according to 10 Downing Street.

Ms Bamford has three cafes in fashionable parts of London and one near their 1,500-acre estate near Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds, 48 kilometres from Mr Johnson's country home in Thame, Oxfordshire.

Daylesford, founded more than 40 years ago by Ms Bamford to sell organic produce from their land has been called the most sustainable – and poshest – farm shop in the UK. It has been praised for its eco-farming – yet another green tick for the family.

The Bamfords' passion for all things green, particularly hydrogen, is certainly justified as the UK hunts for the best replacement for fossil fuels across a wider range of industries, from steelmaking to domestic heating and fuelling air travel.

While JCB so far has not been particularly green in the past, the hydrogen push could certainly be profitable for the company.

FNR601 Anthony Paul Bamford, Chairman of JCB

JCB survived the pandemic despite the heavy hit from Covid-19, with sales falling to £3.1 billion in 2020, down from £4.2 billion in 2019. The number of machine sales fell from 92,216 to 74,590.

The company was forced to place 6,500 staff on furlough at the start of the crisis after demand collapsed.

However, last month JCB chief executive Graeme Macdonald said the company had enjoyed a quick turnaround this year.

“We are sitting here now in September with four times the usual order bank we had in normal times two to three years ago. As a result, we are ramping up production to levels we have not had before. I have never seen anything like it,” said Mr Macdonald.

Critics say hydrogen is inefficient and fear green hydrogen – which is clean to produce and burn – might lose out to hydrogen made from natural gas – which is clean to burn but emits carbon when produced.

Nonetheless, the Bamfords are throwing their weight behind the fuel source.

The Bamford family are already extremely wealthy – a world away from JCB founder Joseph Bamford who started the company in 1945, selling farm trailers from a lock-up shed.

Since Anthony Bamford took over the business in the 1970s the company has gone from strength to strength. Now, the new focus on hydrogen, by both him and his son Jo, could take the family wealth to new levels.

Updated: October 25th 2021, 8:49 AM
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