Bill Wiggin – 2022 Speech on the Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure

The speech made by Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP for North Herefordshire, in the House of Commons on 30 March 2022.

I must declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and, more importantly, the fact that I am an electric car driver. I am delighted with the performance of the Hyundai Kona, although it is due for a battery recall, which I hope will happen very soon. I have driven it for a while, and it is fast—very fast—and a joy to drive. It is no wonder that at the end of November 2021 there were more than 365,000 fully electric cars on UK roads. More than 20,000 electric vehicles were registered in that month last year, and it is expected that over 6 million families will have purchased an electric vehicle by 2030. In addition, National Grid is preparing for the need to power 36 million cars by 2040.

There are some giant challenges facing this area. For example, the amount of electricity needed to travel will increase massively as the number of electric cars grows by some 30% as we swap our energy source from petrol to electricity. We are nowhere near ready for such a step change in demand for electricity yet.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

In Northern Ireland, the rise in electric car ownership has been dramatic, but what has not risen is the number of charging points. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are going to have take-up of electric cars, the number of charging points will have to match that? Does he also agree that they need to be not only in shopping centres but in town centres?

Sir Bill Wiggin

They also need to have sufficient speed of charge. For me, the 50 kW ones are the meaningful ones. I will come on to this later in my speech. When we look online, it is difficult to identify the ones that will get us home, as opposed to the ones that are in people’s drives for their overnight charging.

Coupled with a decrease in VAT on fuel tax as we embrace the opportunities that electric vehicles present, we need to build parking and charging spaces and opportunities into our new housing stock, for no less a reason than that the national car pool could, with smart chargers, be a part of a national battery network. Over a quarter of the UK’s net greenhouse gas emissions come from the transport sector. It is therefore clear that getting the public into electric cars is a key part of the Government’s ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2050. However, we all want the public to be persuaded to abandon their fossil fuel-powered cars, rather than be forced to do so. To help to achieve this, we need to ensure that owning an electric vehicle is as convenient as owning a traditionally powered vehicle.

The main way of fulfilling this ambition must be a focus on range anxiety, and part of the solution to this serious concern is the ability to recharge electric cars easily and quickly. This is what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was talking about. The Government should therefore regard the prevalence and proper function of EV chargers to be just as important as petrol stations are for fossil fuel vehicles.

The Government have already invested heavily in developing a network of fast chargers across the UK: £950 million has been committed to ensure that a motorist is never more than 30 miles away from a rapid charging site. Largely due to this support, more than 500 new fast charging points are being installed in the UK every month. However, those fast charging points suffer from a multitude of issues that prevent consumers from buying into the technology, not least being that “fast chargers” can range from 7.5 kW to 22 kW. These are not fast, and that is one of the massive key failings in the Government support.

Other issues include reliability, ease of use, and the impossibility of tracking down chargers when the need arises. Just the other day, I found to my horror that every fast charger at Membury services on the M4 westbound was broken or would not fit my vehicle. One looked like it had been hit by a car. The next looked like it worked until I downloaded the app, plugged it in and took a photograph of the code, only to be told that it was out of order. The last one was unwilling to accept a payment card, and the instruction screen was so scratched that it was almost impossible to read. Next to them was an immaculate Tesla charging area, with eight unoccupied chargers, which had no screens and so were unavailable to us mere mortals.

The inability to find a fast charger is especially distressing for the electric vehicle owner—it is worse late at night in the freezing cold, although in my case, thankfully, it was not raining—because running out of charge in an electric vehicle is not an option. First, there is no comparable technology to the jerry can, which can be used with fossil-fuelled vehicles. To make matters worse, most electric cars should not be towed, as they lack a true neutral gear, which means that once the vehicle has run out of charge, it is stranded and has to be retrieved by a low-loader lorry. Happily, I was lucky enough to find an operational charging point in Swindon, although it was not listed on any website I could find. I just happened to see it.

It is incidents like that one that rightly damage the public’s perception of the utility of electric vehicles and prevent their further adoption. It is clear that my experience is not unique. Channel 4’s “Dispatches” programme found that last year over 10% of car charging bays in the UK were out of order on a given day. Many charging points consist of only two bays, so a single broken bay plus one other customer in the next-door bay adds to the risk and misery of trying to find a working charging point. The charging process already takes a little longer than refuelling fossil-fuelled cars, and having someone in the queue ahead makes matters doubly worse.

Infrastructure concerns are especially worrying in rural areas like my North Herefordshire constituency, which is home to just four fast charging locations. I am not even sure where they are, but I really would like to know.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con)

I was delighted to give my hon. Friend a lift in an electric vehicle to his home last night. I am less anxious about charging because we have a home charger and we use the Tesla superchargers, but does my hon. Friend agree that the electric vehicle charging infrastructure should be regarded as part of our national security infrastructure? Should it not be included in the consideration of ways not only to reduce our carbon emissions, but to ensure that our nation’s transport is secure, even in a crisis?

Sir Bill Wiggin

My hon. Friend is not only extremely generous to have given me a lift in his very smart Tesla, but absolutely right in everything he says. This message to the public that we can move away from fossil fuels and enjoy electric vehicles—they are great—comes to nothing if the security of the sites is not adequate.

Despite the vast subsidies—almost £1 billion—given to install EV charging points, sufficiently high standards have still not been set for their maintenance, which I think is what my hon. Friend was talking about. The Government would not accept a scenario where 10% of petrol stations were not in working order. During the fuel protests in 2001, the Government provided police escorts to fuel tankers to ensure security of supply, and just last September, the Army was called in to deliver fuel to petrol stations running low on petrol and diesel. So the public know that the Government take the refuelling of traditionally powered cars very seriously. As it stands, the same confidence cannot be had in their backing for electric vehicle charging. That lack of confidence is holding back the widespread adoption of EV technology. Range anxiety is not only real but justified.

The Government’s own figures show that 75% of motorists are reluctant to purchase an electric vehicle as they are concerned about being able to charge it, and 67% of people stated that they thought it was not possible to charge an electric vehicle conveniently and quickly on long journeys. The problem is only exacerbated by the poor quality of information available to those wishing to charge their cars.

Jim Shannon

To back up what the hon. Gentleman is saying, in my constituency of Strangford, which has about 70,000 people, we have only two charging points.

Sir Bill Wiggin

To encourage people to adopt electric vehicles, we will need considerably more. However, equally important is the ability to find those two charging points, and at the moment not a single map—electronic or physical—can display every fast-charging station and whether it is in working order, the size of the charger available and a route to get to it. We should be able to do that. Zap-Map claims to have recorded 95% of public charging points in the UK, but there is accurate information on the condition of only 70% of them. Zap-Map also requires members of the public to report when a fast-charging station is broken, so the information is far too often outdated or incorrect. It is also hard to remove red herring chargers—the little ones below 50 kW —and EV owners do not necessarily have time to use a slow charger. It is so bad that when I visited Manchester for the party conference, there were parking bays allocated for electric vehicles, but they had no chargers, so they were completely useless, yet they shone out of the map invitingly. It is not right to expect electric vehicle owners to roll the dice. Charge point operators must be made to provide a better service in return for the large public subsidies that they receive.

We look to the Government to set strong standards for the maintenance of charge points. That must be paired with penalties for companies that fail to meet them. Now, I am not calling for the return of the death penalty, but I could be persuaded to support its reintroduction for the failure to maintain an EV charging site. In addition, I call for more and better information to be made available to EV owners about where they can charge their cars, as well as all fast-charging locations to be made available on all common map applications and car sat-navs. Clear details on what types of chargers, how many bays are available and their operating condition must be readily available. That information should be shown on forecourt display signs in the same way that petrol and diesel prices are advertised.

Providers who do not follow those common-sense regulations are holding back EV technology across the country and hindering progress towards our net zero emissions target. There is no better example of that than the £350 subsidy for home chargers. It is possible to buy one on eBay for £269, yet that will not be eligible for the subsidy, so the contractors simply add £350 on to their bills. Even when EV charge points do work, they are still somewhat inconvenient to use. Each charging point is operated by a particular company, and each company requires its own subscription and/or app to use it. Despite many previous discussions on this matter, it is hard to know whether the chargers with blue “I’m free” lights showing are actually available to someone who wants to pay with their credit card. EV drivers in the Netherlands can charge their cars on any operator’s network using a unified payment system. I see no reason why we have not already regulated for a similar system in Britain. There is no problem with charge point operators offering preferential rates to their subscribers, but they must also offer a simple contactless or mobile payment option to other motorists.

It is clear that if we are to continue to offer such large subsidies to charge point operators, we must ensure that they are doing more for consumers. In return for public money, these companies owe the Government—and therefore the public—better maintenance, better ease of use and better information. The same is true for local authorities who are exploiting this situation to some extent, too. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham Council provides lots of chargers. When the charger works, the light is green and while charging it is blue. Finally, it turns red, signalling to any passing traffic warden that a fat fine is available. That is hardly encouraging, and as a result the bays are mostly empty.

The Government should now use legislation to ensure that 50 kW charge points should be easy to find on all common map applications and car sat-navs. There is a proper need to identify fast chargers so people are able to get home, rather than the 7.5 kW chargers or the little ones, which may take many hours to charge a car. The quality and availability of that information needs to be clear so that we can find it from the car. Sitting in a warm office is really not an acceptable alternative, but that is how the Government’s report reads. Information listing types of adaptors, how many bays there are and if they are working should be easily available, both online and on petrol price-style display boards.

We also need to enforce standards to ensure that EV charging points are consistently and properly maintained and we must take the power to impose penalties on companies that do not deliver. Taxpayer-funded charging points mean standards, and standards need to be delivered and enforced. Only then will we see consumer confidence grow, more EVs bought and our net zero goals met on time.