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Electric vehicles: A step into the unknown?

By John Pearson MRTPI, Planning Adviser, National Trust

The majority of us have been forced to embrace alternatives to our usual travel habits due to the current coronavirus lockdown. We are switching to Google Earth for site visits and grappling with varying broadband speeds and new platforms for meetings and committees. 

When we are able to resume normal travel practises, it is essential that we re-focus our minds on the key role that electric vehicles (EVs) will play. But have the consequences for planning been properly thought through? The current lockdown presents a great opportunity to pause for thought on better ways of working. 

Although, the policy direction has moved considerably quicker than the practical reality of replacing all petrol and diesel cars by 2035, planning itself has not yet been part of the practical reality.

Centralised charging points

The grid is not ready for centralised charging points, Electricity District Network Operators (DNOs) are not investing sufficient time and resources to bring forward a complete new infrastructure for charging hubs, and the townscape and landscape implications of vast numbers of charging points and associated grid connections needed for this new way of driving have not been thoroughly thought through. Are we all investing now for a 2035 deadline?

In Wales there are some great charging points that give pointers to a future way forward:

  • Cletwr Community Café near Borth offers a fast charge with an adjoining café
  • Palé Hall Hotel near Bala provides a fast charge from an onsite hydro-powered scheme and a walk around the landscaped garden while you charge
  • And Swansea City provides a good example of a local authority being on the front foot to getting better infrastructure, alongside engagement with key stakeholders.

The Welsh Government is keen to provide strategy and a small infrastructure fund. Perhaps post-coronavirus, greater priority may be given to public transport and to reducing  the need for travel, but an electric transport world by 2035 needs a lot more practical thinking.

Within that, planning has an important role in facilitating appropriate change to townscape, landscape and better connectivity.

Urgent need for more joined-up thinking

There is also an urgent need for more joined-up thinking between Planning, Highways and Street Lighting Teams in local authorities. There is an important role for proactive policies on charging hubs and undergrounding low voltage cables in the next round of Local Development Plan (LDP) updates in Wales.

Other unanswered questions include:

  • How do we bring forward connectivity to some of our challenging terraced streets with limited off-road parking without street clutter?
  • How do we ensure business charging locations satisfy the envisaged future demands for workplace charging?
  • Are we putting infrastructure within existing and new build parking?
  • How do planners help bring forward rapid charging hubs?

At the National Trust we are doing what we can in all new and existing car park locations to facilitate and encourage electric vehicles. 

The RTPI identified the need in 2019 for some form of strategic energy plan which could potentially cover the LDP area, surely there are vested interests within the DNOs to fund these plans as part of LDP evidence papers? 

There has been great progress in hot spots including Swindon, Bristol and Bala and, across the UK, pilot projects such as those seen below are also emerging:

  • New Rapid Charging Hubs in Bristol complete with new toilets, food and drink kiosk
  • New Electric Car sharing Clubs in the Lake District and West of England

But can planning help by moving forward a few gears to faster progress? Could business parks and workplaces provide charge points and open them to public use? Could all local authority fleets help stimulate the market demand for EV by opening up charging points for public use?

The policy for EV is a big step into the unknown. 2035 is within the reach of most LDP review policies in Wales and will direct investment to plan for a smarter future. But lots of questions remain unanswered.

Planning and planners have a crucial role in helping to create this smarter energy future and delivering creative answers to some of the more difficult questions.

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