England & Wales Transport and infrastructure

Local authorities have a crucial role in making electric cars an attractive option


Although still early days, Britain has fallen behind other European countries in the take up of electric cars and other ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs). Across Europe, the number of people driving them is growing. Over the last two years France and Norway lead the way, while Britain ranks just 15th among our European neighbours for the share of ULEVs compared to total car registrations. But while there are just over 3,000 electric vehicles in the UK, a tiny proportion of current traffic, electric vehicles are coming to a street near you.

Local authorities can play a crucial role in making the purchase of an electric car a more attractive option. Councils could put in place a series of privileges for electric car users, which could incentive use; a ‘green badge’ scheme could help increase demand and give a much-needed boost to the industry. Such a scheme, like the blue badge scheme for registered disabled drivers, would give drivers of ultra low emissions vehicles rights that other drivers do not enjoy, like driving in bus lanes, free parking, and free use of toll roads. Acting together, local authorities could give clarity for drivers about the privileges that they are entitled to as they travel around.

In the UK, different councils have experimented with different types of electric car usage incentives. For instance:

  • Islington council gives plug-in electric vehicle owners free residential parking permits;
  • Milton Keynes council allows plug-in electric vehicles to be parked free of charge at a charging point regardless of whether or not the vehicle is plugged in or not;
  • Brighton & Hove council allows plug-in electric vehicles to benefit from free parking if the owner has a permit;
  • Wandsworth council offers a reduced residential parking rate for plug-in electric vehicle owners;
  • Westminster council requires plug-in electric vehicle owners to pay a £75 annual fee over and above fees paid to use a charging point, in order to be permitted to park at a charging point for free; and
  • Newcastle council offers free residential parking permits to owners of electric vehicles and offers owners of any other ULEV a discount on their residential parking permit.

But a more coordinated approach to usage incentives, across much larger areas and councils, is common in countries where sales are ahead of the UK.

In February, the UK government delegated responsibility to local authorities for the installation of public and domestic charging points for plug-in electric vehicles. Local authorities should take full advantage of this funding and work together to get rapid charging points into the most optimal locations.

If we can boost demand for ultra low emissions vehicles in the UK, then we can support British industry to export these cars abroad. Countries and regions representing two-thirds of the global economy – including the US, China, EU, Japan and Russia – have all introduced higher standards on vehicle emissions. But companies based in the UK – like Nissan, Honda, and Jaguar Land Rover – need to sell some of their cars at home or they will relocate.

Councils could buy more of these vehicles themselves and save money at the same time. Research conducted by the Energy Saving Trust shows that government financial support and lower running costs can make ultra low emissions vehicles more cost effective over the lifetime than other vehicles. For instance, research prepared for IPPR by the EST, shows that by purchasing a Nissan LEAF rather than a Ford Focus Zetec S, a public sector owner could potentially save £3,755 over a four -year period. The employee driving the vehicle would benefit from savings of £5,197 over the same period. IPPR recommends the introduction of a new government buying standard mandating that the fleet average for all new cars procured by central government should not exceed 95g CO2/km by 2020, with this target being phased in over time.

Over the last decade, the UK has developed an elite export market in the motor industry and British-based firms are innovating to keep up with changes in global rules. Britain is on the starting grid. Now it’s time to get motoring.

Mark Rowney is Research Fellow at the think tank IPPR. He is author of IPPR’s new report: Leading the charge: Can Britain develop a global advantage in ultra-low emission vehicles