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Editor's letter: What can Labour do for the car industry?

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer

Rarely does a conversation go by with an executive without them bemoaning the instability and indecisiveness of the regulatory and legislative environment in which the automotive industry operates.

With good reason, too, especially in the UK, where the outgoing government’s only consistent line has been for the country to be a world leader in electric vehicles. It has been that already, albeit world leading only in causing confusion to the car-buying public as to whether or not they need to buy an EV, and by when.

Yet now we have a new government and a new party running the country - will stability finally now be afforded to the automotive industry and clarity to those buying the cars it creates?

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It’s hard to think the new government can handle messaging any worse than the previous one, yet we don’t know too much about Labour’s view on the industry and motorists beyond some rather broad statements that have created more questions than answers.

This is typified by the one major headline the industry’s ears could prick up to during the campaign, which was to ‘reverse’ Rishi Sunak’s own reversal of a ban on the sale of non-electric cars by 2035, back to 2030, a date which had also been 2040 in the not too distant past.

I’m not too sure the politicians themselves are keeping up with this one, yet it’s worth remembering the only law in place is that in 2030, 80% of new car sales must be electric, and the ‘ban’ is actually an argument over the remaining 20%.

Sunak’s pledge was to allow any fuel type to be sold for the non-electric share of the market, while on the evidence of Sir Keir Starmer’s statement on a reversal it would appear that we’re returning to the plan of that 20% being hybrids with a meaningful electric range (‘meaningful’ being something that was never actually quantified), which was Sunak’s previous plan before his latest one.

Perhaps though Sir Keir actually meant all new car sales to be electric by 2030? Might more flip-flopping occur? Decisive, clear action is needed here and fast: while the 2030 and beyond period has never been a beacon for clarity and a sense of government seeing it as tomorrow’s problem, we now have a government in place that will actually have to worry about this detail as a live and present issue.

Elsewhere, Labour has pledged more charging points for electric cars, which can’t come soon enough as trust is still needed in a charging network at scale that is fit for purpose.

Even from my own relatively experienced work with EVs - I’d conservatively estimate having done at least 40,000 miles in them - just this week I got caught out charging on the road, with an electric charging app telling fibs about availability and compatibility, and then the shiny new chargers at a service station on the M1 not having functioning screens that told you how much you were spending. It added an hour to a journey unnecessarily.

Not only do we need more chargers and a more reliable network, we need accountability for those chargers that are in place already.

Pothole repairs are also in Labour’s plans, as is a ‘modernising’ of the transport infrastructure. Funding of £1.5 billion will be given to support gigafactories, continuing financial support given by the outgoing government to such projects, while money is also being pledged to R&D projects as well as green hydrogen to help support the HGV industry’s own switch to greener transportation.

Then there are things we don’t know: will the UK follow Europe in imposing tariffs on Chinese-made electric cars? And if not, will it use it as a way to entice Chinese manufacturers to build their cars here to avoid such tariffs? What support will Labour offer buyers to go electric, if any? Something here will need to be done, as demand from private buyers towards electric cars is waning, as the latest SMMT sales figures have shown.

An imminent King’s Speech will hopefully tell all about the government’s plans for the automotive industry, and the types of cars car buyers in the UK will be able to buy and when, and perhaps offer a carrot to those wishing to make cars here, too.

Whatever its contents, let’s hope a line in the sand can be drawn as to what the policy is, and then it actually being stuck to.

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