Wednesday (16 June) saw another largely overlooked debate in Westminster Hall concerning the Government’s transport decarbonisation plan, or as Alan Brown MP pithily put it the ‘Government’s lack of a transport decarbonisation plan’.
The plan was supposed to be published last year and Rachel Maclean MP, the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Transport, stated that she would answer head on the question repeatedly put to her by MPs as to when it would see the light of day.
She clearly has a sense of humour, as she teased that there was a final draft but that she was unsatisfied with it. Ms Maclean labelled the draft lacking in ambition and confirmed that she could not provide a date for publication. With the air of child trying to convince a parent they’ve made a start on their homework, she pledged that it would be ‘soon’.
Soon, however, doesn’t really cut it. Almost a third of emissions in the UK come from transport, with over half of that coming from cars, and we need to start tackling this today if we are to have any chance of meeting the net zero commitment by 2050.
I hope the government is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, as any plan is better than none. Emission targets are redundant if you have no strategy for meeting them.
The debate was proposed by Felicity Buchan, MP for Kensington, who curiously congratulated the capital on its relatively low car usage compared to the rest of the country and her constituents on their enthusiasm for electric vehicles (EVs). Clearly this enthusiasm is welcome, but I would posit that the residents of Kensington are by and large more affluent than most and therefore in a better position to afford an EV, something that remains too pricey for many.
On Wednesday evening, chancellor Rishi Sunak made his debut on GB News and Andrew Neil grilled him on the practicalities involved in meeting the Government’s net zero carbon emissions target. Highlighting the financial burden that the lifestyle shifts needed place on the countries poorest, Neil singled out the cost of electric vehicles as one example.
Mr Sunak countered that a grant is available to help individuals invest in an EV but Neil rightly pointed out that this was not enough to make them affordable to most people, especially as it has been slashed to £2,500. Indeed, many people will never buy a brand new car in their life time and though a second hand market for EVs is emerging, it will take some time to become buoyant.
The widespread take up of EVs is crucial to reducing our carbon emissions but proper top-down government action is needed to make this a reality. Passing the buck to local authorities to apply for a hodgepodge of funding pots to pay for charging infrastructure isn’t good enough and neither is leaving it to the private sector, who won’t have much interest in ensuring remote areas are properly serviced.
Rachel Maclean MP
In addition, in London, despite car travel not dominating the transport landscape, there is one charge point for every 2,700 people, whereas in the east of England there is one for every 38,500 people. Scotland is out in front with regard to EV charging points, with a quarter more available than in England because its government chose to directly invest in this.
Back in Westminster Hall, the minister encouraged MPs to come to her so she could tell them if local authorities in their constituencies had not taken advantage of on-street residential charge point scheme. This is tiresome finger pointing and regardless, such schemes are a drop in the ocean. What we need are publicly available electric vehicle charging forecourts.
We are told that the Transport Decarbonisation Plan will include further commitments to drive the decarbonisation agenda at the local level. However, the Government has refused to provide an actual timescale for publication and time is of the essence. The plan is central to ensuring the speedy roll out of the reliable and accessible EV charging infrastructure the public needs in order to be persuaded that electric cars are the future.
Tim Byles CBE is executive chairman and founder of social investment company Cornerstone Assets, and the former chief executive of Partnerships for Schools. He has held senior roles at local transport authorities, and was chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives for four years.