In Brief

UK car sales collapse to six-year low as ‘perfect storm’ hits

New figures show Brexit and emissions uncertainty are taking toll

Sales of new cars in the UK have fallen to a six-year low amid ongoing economic uncertainty caused by Brexit and increased restrictions on diesel emissions.

According to newly released figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), new car registrations in 2019 dropped by 2.4% year-on-year to about 2.3 million - the lowest since 2013, when 2.26 million new cars were sold.

And although Britain is “Europe’s second-largest market for new vehicles”, according to Reuters, sales have been in a steady decline since 2016, after peaking at 2.7 million.

The new figures “add to signs that households grew more cautious about their spending last year, despite low unemployment and rising wages”, says the news site. 

In a briefing ahead of the release of the data, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes “repeated his industry’s plea for a post-Brexit trade deal that preserves frictionless trade between the EU and the UK, and that prevents the imposition of tariffs”, The Guardian reports.

As well as Brexit uncertainty, the trade association believes that uncertainty over future air quality rules, “and in particular over potential restrictions on diesel vehicles entering city centres, has left consumers confused”, adds the BBC.

Giving his views on the reasons for the sales drop, Hawes said: “You can never put it down to one single factor. It has been a perfect storm over the past few years.” 

One key factor has been a steep decline in diesel car sales, which plunged by 22% last year compared with 2018, and now account for just a quarter of the market.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers are rushing to meet emissions regulations that came into force in the EU at the start of 2020. Reuters reports that the UK is expected to “stick to existing EU plans to fine car manufacturers” who do not hit emission targets post-Brexit, with the levies due to come into effect next year.

In glimmer of hope for the industry, sales of battery electric and hybrid vehicles have bucked the overall trend, rising by 20.6% to a record market share of 7.4%. The increase has been attributed to a rise in battery electric sales, which were up by 144% in 2019.

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