An electric car at Millbrook Proving Ground test track, In Bedfordshire, UKPaul Markillie / Alamy
Stripes of green began appearing on electric cars’ number plates last year, with the UK government hailing them as a step towards cleaner air in cities because they would “unlock” incentives from local authorities.
However, freedom of information requests by New Scientist reveal that, nine months on from the introduction of green number plates, not one of England’s 343 local authorities has said it has offered any associated incentives.
On 8 December 2020, transport minister Rachel Maclean said the UK government’s adoption of green stripes would not only raise awareness of the growing number of cleaner vehicles on roads, but “could also unlock a number of incentives for drivers”.
A Department for Transport (DfT) press release added that they would help “motorists benefit from local initiatives such as cheaper parking and cost-free entry into zero-emission zones”.
But the councils that responded to New Scientist’s enquiry said they hadn’t implemented any incentives that used green number plates. Several said they already had incentive schemes, such as free or discounted parking, in place for electric car drivers before the plates were introduced. Some said they were considering them for the future.
Camden Council in London even went as far to say it wouldn’t contemplate using them as a basis for identifying an electric vehicle because it had seen a “few incidents” of them being used fraudulently.

“It is very disappointing that no councils are currently offering incentives for vehicles displaying green number plates,” says Jack Cousens at the AA, a motoring organisation. “Several councils are working on providing some benefits, but we need more councils to step up to the plate and deliver them faster.” However, he says green number plates are a good idea and seeing more of them on roads will increase public interest in electric vehicles.
It is understood that the DfT sees the main purpose of the plates to be for awareness. But the department cited incentives from local authorities as a key reason for introducing green stripes three times in its December 2020 press release. It even claimed that the incentives arising from the plates could “pave the way for cleaner air in our towns and cities”. However, local authorities are still relying on either number plate recognition and the more involved process of drivers providing vehicle registration documents to identify electric vehicles that might receive incentives, rather than the green stripes.
Electric car sales surged by almost 186 per cent last year, and the UK has promised to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. But the government has given mixed signals on its support for electric vehicles, which are seen as essential for cutting air pollution and meeting climate targets. In March, a grant towards electric cars was cut from £3000 to £2500.

Doug Parr at Greenpeace UK says while there are good reasons to shift to electric cars, there are many others for why we should reduce our dependence on private vehicles, so the lack of incentives for the plates isn’t a disaster. “However, whilst government has made a progressive commitment to end the sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, it’s not helpful for this kind of transition to be pushed by phantom incentives from government with no follow-through.”
“Green number plates help differentiate vehicles based on their environmental impact, educate road users and encourage cleaner travel,” a DfT spokesperson told New Scientist. “They also help local authorities design and enforce regional policies and incentives, such as free parking and zero-emission zones.”
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