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£1bn fund to expand EV charging network still not open after three years

Almost £1bn meant to help build Britain’s electric vehicle charging network remains unallocated more than three years after it was first announced by Rishi Sunak.

Promised in March 2020 before the first Covid lockdown in Sunak’s early weeks as Boris Johnson’s chancellor, the “rapid charging fund” was meant to support electrical capacity at motorway service stations. It was intended to help fund upgrades to the grid so that more electric cars can be rapidly charged at the same time.

The fund is still not yet open for applications. A pilot scheme had been planned for late 2022 before it was pushed back to spring 2023, then the summer of this year.

The government indicated last week there would be further delays after the transport minister, Jesse Norman, admitted to the House of Commons it was still “in the process of developing a pilot … which will open in due course”. Sunak had already been criticised for rowing back on net zero policies.

Industry sources said the pilot may not launch before Christmas, and warned the latest setback risks delaying the rest of the fund until after a general election, which is expected next year.

“It’s very disappointing that the rapid charging fund is still not open for business,” said Simon Williams, head of policy at the RAC, a motoring group. He warned the government was also on track to break a pledge to have six high-powered chargers at every motorway service area in England by the end of 2023.

“In May the RAC found that less than a quarter of 119 motorway services had the prescribed number of chargers, so it seems unlikely there will have been enough progress to get anywhere near this target,” he said.

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“Drivers making journeys beyond the range of their vehicles need to know they can quickly and simply recharge at these key locations. If this commitment isn’t delivered on it risks slowing down the transition to zero-emission driving even more.”

Planned with the ambition to prepare for a fully electric car and van fleet and reduce “range anxiety” among motorists, the rapid charging fund is designed to subsidise the installation of charging points at motorway and major A road service areas.

It had formed a central pillar of Johnson’s 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” announced in late 2020, while the government committed in an electric vehicle infrastructure strategy last year to launch a pathfinder scheme at selected locations in 2022, followed by a full opening in 2023.

The fund has, however, faced investigations from the Competition and Markets Authority over the potential for the subsidies to distort competition between motorway service area operators, which published its final report in June. Companies then pushed back against proposals to boost competition by requiring two charge point operators at each motorway services receiving funding.

Bill Esterson, Labour’s shadow transport minister, said it was clear the government was failing to deliver for drivers. He said: “The bare minimum electric vehicle drivers should expect is a functioning charging network, but constant delays from ministers are holding back the rollout.”

Although designed to support charging point installations in locations where they lack commercial viability, some companies believe taxpayer funding is not always necessary.

Maurice Hochschild, executive chair of Osprey Charging, said his firm would consider bidding for the funds – depending on the terms – but added that most of the industry was not suffering from a lack of funding, given the interest of global energy companies and infrastructure funds.

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“There is certainly a view that the money could be better applied elsewhere,” he said. “With my taxpayer hat on, is it needed? No, I don’t believe it is.”

However, others believe support is vital to kickstart investment on the motorway network because of the higher costs of bringing electricity infrastructure to remote areas where service stations are typically located.

Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: “The rapid charging fund is essential for financing the grid improvements necessary for a national ultra-rapid charging network, so we cannot afford any more delays, else we delay the delivery of net zero.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “While about 96% of motorways service areas already have charging available, we know the industry has plans to install even more charge points in the coming months.”