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James Baggott: Diesel’s in danger – and we need solutions, not scaremongering

Time 9:54 am, January 24, 2017

ROLL back just a few short years and anyone and everyone was buying diesel.

It didn’t matter whether you were going to spend most of your time pottering around town or on short runs to the school and back, diesel engines were said to be more economical and cheaper to run and therefore became the default choice for car buyers.

But the tide is changing. It doesn’t matter that new diesel engines are cleaner than ever – not to mention the incoming Euro 6 units – diesel is now as welcome as a rattle snake in a lucky dip, and I can’t see the mood changing any time soon.

In the last month, it’s been demonised in national newspapers and on television.

Only this morning on my way to the airport to Detroit, I listened to a debate on the Today programme where John Humphrys asked another ill-informed politician what she’d do to clean up air quality.

Her answer? ‘Ban all diesel cars from the road.’

That’s quite a strong stance, wouldn’t you say? And then a few weeks before, in an article in the Evening Standard, I read a piece by Simon Birkett, the founder and director of Clean Air in London and an advisor to the EU’s environment programme, in which he claimed it was ‘car salesmen who are the problem’.

He wrote: ‘Salesmen in car showrooms are contributing to the problem. I despair of hearing stories of people wanting to do the right thing yet being conned into buying a diesel car.

‘One streetwise campaigner tried to cancel their order the following day and was told “tough luck”. Other car showrooms aren’t displaying a single petrol vehicle in case you ask about it and tell you it will cost more than a diesel if you do.’

Now I have no idea who Simon Birkett is, but he’s obviously a plonker. Yet this is the sort of plonker who writes in national newspapers with an agenda to ban diesel cars.

And if we’re not careful, people will start taking plonkers like Simon Birkett seriously.

A perennial problem

Our industry needs to do something radical – and start lobbying the government for a serious solution to what is in danger of becoming a tsunami of misinformation and mistruth.

At our Automotive Influencers event at the end of last year – and reported on in this issue – some manufacturers called for a scrappage scheme that targets ‘dirty diesels’. They said not only would it help bolster sales in a falling market, but also help solve a perennial problem.

I find it hard to argue that a fall of five to six per cent in new car sales this year, as predicted by the SMMT, is enough of a drop to warrant a new scrappage scheme. However, if that scheme was to be targeted at removing poor performing diesel engines from the roads, it would make far more sense.

Removing those old diesel-engined cars – the likes of which we see churning out toxic gases in every town and city up and down the country – makes sense. What that berk Birkett, or the ill-informed MP on Radio 4 don’t realise is that banning diesel is not the only answer. Modern diesel engines are by far and away more efficient and less polluting than their counterparts of yesteryear.

What if the government offered drivers of diesel-engined cars over 10 years old a £2,000 incentive to buy a new car in exchange for the old one to be scrapped? And that new car had to be a sub-100g/km model or a hybrid, or EV? There’s a particularly strong argument for it to incentivise the latter.

Buyers need a kick to adopt electric vehicle technology and an additional carrot to get out of their old habits and into a new one, would make sense.

It’s likely such a scheme would eventually make the government money too. The last scrappage scheme certainly did – the VAT receipts the Treasury received far outweighed the upfront cash it put into the initiative.

A new scheme targeting dirty diesels could well have the same effect and would have the added bonus of helping ease the pressure of falling car sales.

I’m not saying a scrappage scheme is the answer to all our problems. Far from it. We need to work together as an industry to ensure the public have all the facts when buying their next car.

I find Birkett’s story in the Evening Standard hard to believe – the thought showrooms don’t display petrol cars is fanciful, but he believes it’s the case and the paper lets him get away with writing it.

If we don’t act now, diesel is in danger – and when it makes sense for so many, killing it off completely would be a very sad thing.

Who is James Baggott? He’s the founder of Car Dealer Magazine and chief executive officer of parent company @BaizeGroup, an automotive services provider. He now spends most of his time on Twitter @CarDealerEd and annoying the rest of us.

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James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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