Where the wired things are. A look at the ‘north-south’ divide in electric car registrations

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My eye was caught last week by a chart on Statista.com, showing a highly uneven distribution of Plug-in Grant-eligible cars around the UK. It appeared to align closely with a regional map of UK prosperity published by Barclays Wealth & Investments.

At first sight, the data seemed to corroborate William Gibson’s oft-quoted quote “The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet”.

The coincidence definitely called for for further analysis and comparison, so I reached for further stats from the Department for Transport and then for my electronic crayons. Sure enough, the two maps did look remarkably similar when put side by side:

Green regions = highest prosperity/EV registrations

Green regions = highest prosperity/EV registrations

London, the South East, the South, Eastern counties and the West Midlands – all among the most affluent regions on the Barclays chart – have 54 per cent of the total population and registered cars but 70 per cent of all plug-ins. Contrast that with the North East and North West of England, with 14 per cent of the UK population and 15 per cent of all cars but apparently only seven per cent of EVs.

Put another way, the data seem to suggest that the better-off south east and west midlands have almost four times as many EVs per person than the harder-up north of the country.

If that is true, then it would say a lot about how much cheaper and more accessible electric cars will have to become before they start to make serious inroads into the job of replacing the country’s stock of petrol and diesel cars.

But there’s always a but…

But… The big fat caveat that goes with any statistical comparison is that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. EV registrations look as though they follow the money in the UK but is regional affluence the only factor at work?

It certainly isn’t. Many if not most EVs are leased rather than outright purchased. Businesses and public sector organisations have so far been a major market for plug-in cars, and many private users take EVs on personal lease packages.

Leased cars are almost always registered to the leasing company. So they show up in registration data at the company’s HQ address, irrespective of where they are actually used, which might be the other end of the country.

Since all six of the UK’s largest fleet leasing companies are headquartered below a line from the Wash to the Severn Estuary, their EV registrations will definitely skew perceptions of ‘where the wired things are’ across the country. Between them, those companies account for nearly 70 per cent of cars rented from Britain’s top leasing firms. Just one of them, Hampshire-based Alphabet UK, delivered around 10 per cent of all plug-in grant-eligible cars and vans in the UK in 2016 and 2017.

So, does that banish the thought of a north-south prosperity gap in take-up of plug-in cars? Not entirely. In my experience, the HQs of the corporate customers of the leasing companies also tend to be concentrated in the south. Only if the leasing companies analysed their data on where end-user EV drivers live would one get a clear picture of how the cars themselves are distributed.

It’s probable that the North East, for example, has more than the 1.1 EVs per thousand people the registration data indicate, while the South East has fewer than the indicated 3.6. But I’d still bet the North East is below the UK-wide average of two EVs per thousand, even allowing for the effect of leasing on regional registrations.

And in any case, the salient figures in this story are those for EV penetration of the total car parc. They’re not good. The numbers on the regional registrations map average out at 0.4%.

Total new registrations of plug-ins from January to May 2019 were down by 3.2 per cent compared to the same period last year, despite a 60 per cent rise in registrations of pure EVs. The overall fall was mainly due to loss of demand for plug-in hybrids after most PHEVs became ineligible for the plug-in grant last autumn.

The honest take-away from the regional distribution picture is that EV take-up is still too weak everywhere to support talk of decarbonising the UK’s car parc by mid-century, let alone before 2040 as some would like.


Top image credit: Warner Bros Pictures 2008. For more information on the Barclays index methodology, visit UK Prosperity Map | Barclays.