So far, the electric car grant that is supposed to transform road transport in the UK has been, to put it politely, a partial success. It enticed a further 215 applicants over the last three months, to bring the total to an unimpressive 680. Of those 215, 75% were bought by companies meaning that only 50 private motorists bought one. 49 of them didn't want an electric car but the salesman was such a very nice young man. I wonder where Philip Hammond is hiding? Yes, that's right, the same Philip Hammond who said:
"Government action to support affordable vehicles and more local charging points means we are on the threshold of an exciting green revolution - 2011 could be remembered as the year the electric car took off."
A DfT spokesman trying to keep a straight face said:
“We are committed to supporting the early market for low emission vehicles in the UK – they are essential in making reductions in CO2 emissions from road transport. We can’t turn our back on the automotive sector that adds around £11 billion a year to the UK economy.”
Now, you could pick holes in every phrase in that paragraph, but the one fundamental truth is that by any measure the DfT has failed to "support the early market for low emission vehicles", and so far 2011 doesn't look like it will be "the year the electric car took off" given that sales are on a downward trajectory. It won't have helped that Boris Johnson has made all new VED Band A cars exempt from the congestion charge, which removes the incentive to buy an electric car to avoid that expense. Hammond seems to have no realistic plan to get people to buy electric cars. Unless he offers bigger incentives that make electric cars an economic proposition, or makes fossil-fuelled cars relatively more expensive (which is what the congestion charge did in London until Boris changed the rules), why would anyone bother? Hammond cannot do either of those things, because there's not enough money for bigger incentives, and more tax on fossil-fuelled cars would be seized upon by the media and perhaps the opposition as 'war on the motorist'. Which means Hammond is left without a strategy to de-carbonize the UK's road transport.
Oil prices may come to the rescue in a few years time, but by then it will be too late. The need is to reduce our oil-dependency so that the economy is less exposed to an oil price shock. Waiting for the oil price to rise before we do anything about our oil-addiction is a bit like waiting to have a heart attack before we stop sitting on the couch eating junk food (which strangely enough is another of the Coalition's policies).
Ironically enough, the Government's do-nothing policy could actually be the best one for cycling. A sudden increase in oil prices could force a lot of people off the roads. Over the last year many people have reduced their car mileage in response to relatively mild increases in the cost of motoring. People might just discover at the back of their garage a two-wheeled device that enables them to travel for free, and their need to get around could just be stronger than their fears and prejudices about cycling.