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Published 15 December 2022
Last week, in his first appearance before the Commons Transport Committee, new Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper warned that it is unlikely there will be time in this parliament for any kind of transport bill.
It was only in May that a new transport bill covering both rail and the future of road transport was included in the Queen’s Speech. However, that was two Transport Secretaries ago, and both the political and economic landscape have changed dramatically since then. Alarm bells were ringing when Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the last Transport Secretary stated in October that a smaller bill focusing on ‘future of transport’ would be brought before parliament. Even this has now been shelved.
Assuming that nothing will now appear before the next King’s Speech, we question the government’s appetite for bringing forward any kind of transport bill before the next General Election, which will take place no later than January 2025. Meanwhile, other issues, especially those involving economic, foreign and labour matters, are likely to occupy the government’s attention.
When the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 (AEVA) was passed, it was widely regarded as world-leading legislation, allowing for incremental regulatory changes to keep pace with technological advancements in the automotive industry. Since then, however, successive UK governments have done little while other countries have caught up and in some cases overtaken the UK. The EU, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, China and many American states have passed or updated laws around automated vehicles in the last 4 years.
Shelving the transport bill calls into question the viability of the roadmap set out by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles to integrate automated vehicles. The targets set for 2025 were always, in our opinion, overly ambitious, but now they seem impossible.
In terms of infrastructure, the UK is also lagging behind some of its economic competitors. In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor confirmed that spending in this area would be protected. This was put forward as proof that the government is committed to developing infrastructure as part of its growth strategy, but in the context of high inflation it still amounts to a real world spending cut. Conversely, in late 2021, President Biden secured $7.5 billion to build a network of EV chargers across the US and $65 billion to improve access to reliable high-speed internet.
The UK, once one of the preferred manufacturing and testing locations for automated vehicles, is now losing ground to countries like the US, China and Germany, largely because those countries are investing the time and resources into updating their laws and infrastructure.
Automated and electric vehicles will only receive widespread consumer acceptance if the government supports their responsible integration, by providing the legislation and infrastructure required. Neither of these will happen overnight, so the sooner progress starts, the better.
Earlier this year, former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps hinted that we could expect to see the government legalise use of privately owned e-scooters on public roads as part of the transport bill. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, Baroness Vere also informed the House of Lords that the government planned on creating a new vehicle category specifically for e-scooters: a low speed, zero-emission vehicle category that would be independent from the existing cycle and motorcycle categories.
With the shelving of the transport bill, we no longer expect to see any legislation on e-scooters during the current parliamentary session. The only announcement that has taken effect relates to UK e-scooter rental scheme trials that can now be extended to May 2024, so that can continues to rattle down the road.
As with other areas of innovative transport, the UK is staying put while other countries move ahead.
The Republic of Ireland is poised to legalise privately owned e-scooters in early 2023. Meanwhile, France is headed in the other direction, with further restrictions being placed on e-scooter rental schemes. Notwithstanding the divergence in thinking on e-scooters amongst our European neighbours, they are, at least taking definitive steps, unlike the UK.
The UK government’s lack of activity and communication means road users and consumers are unclear about the law governing e-scooters. Retailers continue to sell devices that are illegal to use on public roads, with many people completely unaware they cannot use them as they please. Lack of knowledge, training or effective policing of e-scooter use have resulted in numbers of casualties nearly doubling in the last year alone. Whereas there was one recorded fatality involving an e-scooter between June 2020 and June 2021, in the following twelve months the number of deaths sadly rose to twelve.
Policy is a matter for politicians and the legislature, but the lack of any meaningful advancement in any direction gives us reason to question the government’s commitment in this important space.
The future of transport is a highly competitive and fast moving area. Several years ago, the UK government understood this and was committed to staying ahead of the field to attract inwards investment. The current government, on the other hand, seems to have lost the desire to remain an industry leader. Excuses can be given about recovering from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but the fact remains that other countries are moving forward and the UK is not.
As automated vehicle technologies continue to develop and more and more people purchase e-scooters, now is the time for the government to set out a series of ambitious, proactive plans. Those could protect road users, allow the UK to regain its competitive edge, advance net-zero transportation and grow the economy by expanding this emerging industry. The Law Commission has provided excellent analysis and ideas; industry leaders and stakeholders are keen to assist. All we need now is government to engage.
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