Delayed petrol car ban was inevitable; Sunak's uncertainty wasn't

Road Cars

Rishi Sunak's delay in the ban on new petrol and diesel cars was much anticipated — and necessary, says Andrew Frankel. Britain wasn't ready to go fully electric in 2030, but the government only has itself to blame

Electric car charging at Esso petrol station

Brand new petrol and diesel cars will co-exist with new electric cars for a further five years

Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

We saw many things in the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday, but primarily a fairly transparent and some might think desperate attempt to reset his government in the public eye and narrow the yawning chasm in the opinion polls between his administration and its shadow on the other side of the house.

But on the specific announcement that the ban on the sale of new cars powered by internal combustion engines alone was being pushed back from 2030 to 2035 we saw something else too: an acknowledgement of the situation in which we find ourselves today.

What Mr Sunak did yesterday was attempt to make a virtue out of necessity, by presenting an uncomfortable truth in such a way that it makes him look decisive and a man of the people, while you may or may not have already concluded he is neither.

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As you might expect, motoring journalists spend a lot of time talking to people in industry, intelligent and informed outsiders and other journalists about the big issues of the day, and I’ve not yet had one conversation with any of them who thought the country would be ready for the ban to come into force little more than six years from now.

There are essentially two problems, either one of which would be enough to derail the 2030 plan. The first is obvious: the infrastructure won’t be ready. Of course it is important to make clear that under the old plan hybrids capable of covering a ‘significant’ distance with zero tailpipe emissions would have still been allowed to be sold until 2035 and it was particularly unhelpful that the government made no effort to explain what it means by ‘significant’. Is that one mile, ten or one hundred? Who knows? But in any event these cars are heavy, expensive and doomed. The push will be for the widespread adoption of pure EVs. Which requires not only a network of reliable fast chargers extending to all corners of all nations that make up the United Kingdom, but also the electricity to power them. And even now when demand is relatively tiny, there are fast chargers in motorway services stations that do not function simply because there is not the electricity in the system to allow them to do so.

Large electric car charging station

More charging stations are needed — along with the infrastructure to support them


The second part of the same problem is how does a person living in a block of flats or even a house in a terraced street get access to that electricity? As I’ve said before, if you have off-street parking and use an EV as a second car, they work very well. But that’s a tiny proportion of the population.

The next problem is cost, not so much to us, as to the government. I have a local friend who is on a smart tariff that allows him to charge his EV overnight at the cost of 11 pence per kilowatt hour, which will allow him to drive around 3.5 miles. It is the kind and size of car that, were it powered by petrol would do around 35 miles to the gallon. Which means he can cover 35 miles for £1.10, whereas the equivalent amount of petrol would have cost him over £7. The government currently makes over £23 billion in fuel duty and we had no idea at all how it was going to recoup that were people faced with the choice of buying an EV or a soon to be obsolete hybrid. But it seems some form of road pricing would have been inevitable.

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Of course what is likely to have happened is that vast numbers would have chosen to do neither and run their old petrol and diesel-powered cars into the ground instead, which rather defeats the point. But that’s now all been kicked down the road.

Or has it? If Mr Sunak’s plans don’t start to turn around his government’s fortunes, he won’t be in power for much longer and all these plans will become subject to change by a new Labour administration. What Sunak has achieved is to put Sir Keir Starmer in the invidious position of either reversing a new policy that is likely to find favour with voters, or to adopt and therefore tacitly endorse it.

Home charging an electric Volkswagen ID5

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For myself, I think re-adopting 2030 would be a mistake, not for any political reason but because the target was, is and will likely remain unrealistic and would simply contrive to keep people in older, more polluting cars for longer, which is the law of unintended consequences chiming in long and loud. But for now uncertainty reigns. And if you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s hard to see past the door of Number 10. It was the previous incumbent but one – Boris Johnson – who committed the country to 2030 while knowing perfectly well he’d not the person who had to implement it, and his successors who have done little or nothing to ensure the country is ready for it. Perhaps because they realised it never would be.