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Signs of the Times Difficult to Understand

January 14, 2022

Peter Guest

From time to time, The Sunday Times, the broadsheet Sunday edition of the Times of London publishes a special supplement on some topic of the hour under the header Raconteur. Just recently there was one entitled “The Future of Retail.” Shops have been having a fairly difficult time over the last few years with people shifting to online buying, and The Pestilence has seen off many smaller and, indeed, larger retailers. About 20 percent of the local shops in my nearest big town are now dark and there is nothing to suggest that it’s getting any better. 


So, 14 pages of broadsheet should contain some pretty incisive stuff? No and nope. Lots of buzz word speak about technology, demonstrating all too often the assumption that change and progress are synonyms, but absolutely nothing about what I would see as pretty fundamental to the whole process: transport. Transport links the retailer to the customer, be it vans moving goods from warehouses to customers, or shops; or cars, buses and trains, and cycles and feet, moving people to the shops. Not a word, nothing, nada. 


Ten years ago, our then prime minister believed that our towns were dying because shoppers had to pay to park, and everyone knew that car drivers spent the most. Sadly, for him, the data said exactly the opposite. Shoppers without cars spent less per trip, but visited more often and, in total, spent more. His champion of this idea even got a knighthood and several million pounds to promote a solution. 


The towns where this money was invested got rapidly worse and it all got kicked into the long grass. I digress, The Sunday Times did not see that access and mobility had any role. But surely, the way you connect people to goods is the future of retailing. And, given the way cars dominate travel outside our cities, car parking, well designed and sensibly priced, must be pretty important. We are about to undergo a revolution in the way parking is thought about as we head towards the government’s target date to phase out the internal combustion engine and everyone realizes many of the existing parking structures will not be fit for purpose to accommodate the next generation of bigger and heavier EVs. A brave new world where new cars can’t use the old car parks, and no provision has been made to build new ones, is going to be pretty desolate.


The government has just announced the national building regulations have now been updated to make it mandatory to install EV chargers into new buildings. The building regulations 2010 are a national mandatory set of rules on how new buildings must be built and cover things like insulation, fire safety, and so on. The new regulations not only set out rules for houses, but also cover all other types of building. I am not sure that the authors of this have actually ever seen a real building or know what a car or car park are.


To paraphrase, all new dwellings must have a charger, but not if it will cost more that £3,600 a space? Then the builder only has to install the cabling. The rationale behind this is not explained. It is, of course, much more cost effective to do a complete fit out in one, rather than rely on multiple tenants retro fitting chargers as they move in, but this is government thinking, not amenable to rational interpretation. 


For non-residential buildings it gets weirder. The requirement seems to be that any new building must have ONE charger and 20 percent of the other spaces must have cabling for a charger. So, build a small store with eleven spaces: one charger and two sets of cables. Build a new airport terminal with 1,000 spaces: one charger and cables for 200? Surely, this can’t be what they mean, but it seems to be what it says. Now this is a good bit: a charger must: “be compatible with all vehicles which may require access to it.” There are still more than half a dozen different charging connections in use, and no signs of the industry heading towards a standard universal connector any time soon. Does such a beast even exist?


There is also something about cables not being trip hazards. How does that work? Do we have to hang them from the ceiling, moving them out of reach for anyone in a wheelchair? I wonder if anyone in government actually consulted outside of their fairy realm before this was published?


Meanwhile, in another difficult to understand move, the government has reduced the new EV grant from £2,500 to £1,500. It has also dropped the ceiling for qualifying cars from £35,000 to £32,000. Government grants and subsidies are always contentious, but if the national policy is to promote a change, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to skew the market a little to support your policy objective. Doing exactly the opposite is just plain irrational.



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