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UK car pool shrinks for first time since 1904

The number of cars on Britain's roads has seen the first peacetime decline since records began in 1904, according to figures published yesterday.

Although the last decade has seen a slight flattening of the growth curve, the UK's total car fleet – or "parc" – has registered annual growth continuously for the 64 years since the end of the Second World War.

But that all changed in 2009. The UK parc came in at 31,035,791 last year, a 0.7 per cent fall compared with 2008.

Experts point the finger at both the recession and the Government's scrappage scheme, which offered drivers a subsidy of £2,000 towards a new car if a vehicle more than 10 years' old was scrapped.

The car industry was hit hard by the global recession. At the worst point, in March last year, monthly registrations of new cars were down by a whopping 31 per cent from the previous year. And by February 2010 – despite eight consecutive months of rising figures – sales were still 1.3 per cent below the 2008 tally and 12.2 per cent lower than the 1999-2009 average.

Paul Everitt, the chief executive of the SMMT, said: "The recession is the most obvious factor impacting on the number of cars on the road."

But the scrappage scheme also played a key role. When the £400m, 10-month scheme came to an end last month, it had received 400,000 applicants – pushing 400,000 old cars on to the scrapheap that might otherwise simply have been sold on.

Although there would have been some trickle-down, and a proportion of cars would have been written off anyway, it is unlikely that all the vehicles would have been scrapped over such a short period of time, Mr Everitt said.

The combination of recession and scrappage added to the downwards pressure already being exerted by tighter enforcement of vehicle regulations. Thanks to changes to the rules on off-road notification and licensing in recent years, unlicensed vehicle details are scrubbed from the DVLA database, and abandoned cars collected and scrapped, more quickly and efficiently than in the past.

A knock-on effect of the scrappage scheme has been to improve the carbon footprint of Britain's cars. Over the entire parc, carbon emissions were down by an average of 1.7 per cent last year compared with 2008, according to the SMMT. In the past three years, the number of cars emitting less than 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre has shot up by more than 90 per cent to nearly 950,000.

On a more cosmetic note, silver was Britain's favourite colour of car for the second year running in 2009. Blue and black are closely behind, with red in fourth position in the rankings.