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BIRD'S EYE VIEW: Now is not the time to start switching off electric

Date: 23 July 2008

Guy Bird is our editor-at-large and political columnist

News that the City of London is moving to end free parking for electric vehicles might be amusing for G-Wiz haters but it's bad news for both carmakers and fleets

The trouble with 'special offers' is they're usually too good to be true.

You know the sort of phrases used to hoodwink by now: "50% off selected* items" (*i.e. the ones no-one wants); "Buy one, get one free"** (**while stocks last, we've already run out); or "Park your electric vehicle for free"*** (***until it gets popular and we start losing too much revenue).

Guess which one would seem to apply to the City of London? You guessed right. According to electric car company Nice the 'offer' for on-street permits is now closed to 'new applicants' and existing permit holders only get the rest of 2008 free before paying a £50 'admin fee' in 2009 and more in 2010. Meanwhile, season tickets for EV drivers using any of the six City of London car parks move from being free in 2008 to £2000 in 2009 before jumping to £4000 in 2010 (the same as for regular cars).

Apparently, the 'trial provision' proved a bit too successful and the council became concerned that it encouraged private car use over public transport - errrr doh, exactly what did they expect to happen? Maybe they were banking on the G-Wiz's ugly looks to put people off, but for 900 or so owners in London it didn't.

Of course the jaded fleet manager has seen this before. At various points technologies like LPG and hybrids have attracted tax incentives (sometimes regardless of the individual models' efficiency) wrapped up in eco-friendly clothes, before having them eroded.

EVs deserve different treatment. There are less 'eco grey areas' to worry about. All are zero emission at the tailpipe and even factoring in the worst possible coal-fired stations to generate their electricity, offer a whole-life CO2 impact way below existing conventional cars.

From being seen as an insignificant sideline joke, EVs are now being touted by carmakers around the globe. Renault for one says they could represent up to a fifth of all cars sold by 2020. Not a day goes by without another maker announcing EV news - just the other week even BMW confirmed it was modifying a few hundred Minis for EV trials.

The public appetite seems to be ready for EVs as never before too - as long as they are safe, look good, well priced, drive like a normal car and have a decent range and recharge time. Governments including Israel and Denmark are making big concessions to kick-start the new form of propulsion and in his most recent speech on creating a low carbon economy late last month, even our Gordon Brown talked in glowing terms about EVs' future in the UK. Incentives are vital to get this market going before economies of scale and product maturity make EVs less costly (and tax breaks less necessary).

The City of London (as opposed to the bigger Greater London Authority run by Boris) can't possibly think it's done enough on this eco issue already. Let's hope it doesn't set a precedent.