The number of light commercial vehicles in the UK rocketed by almost 30% to 3.28 million in the last decade and vans now account for one-in-10 vehicles on the UK’s roads.

During the same period of time, the numbers of HGVs decreased by 5% to 460,00.

These were among the findings that emerged from an RAC Foundation study, released in January, into trends in LCV use in the UK market.

The RAC Foundation invited What Van? to an industry seminar to discuss the results of its analysis.

The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, which means the press agree to report on the discussion without naming the individuals or organisations who contribute.

Suffice to say leading figures from the commercial vehicle industry, from academia, Government, motoring groups and major fleets were in attendance.

Several reasons were put forward for the sharp rise in LCV numbers compared to their heavier counterparts. These ranged from the greater legislative requirements of operating HGVs to an increase in home deliveries resulting from internet shopping. But the suggestion that some operators had swapped trucks for vans in an attempt to cut costs during the recession was dismissed as “simplistic”. It was argued that the slight fall in HGV numbers was down to an increase in the vehicles’ sophistication, which enabled them to work more efficiently.

In terms of ownership, the research found 47% (1.5m) of LCVs are registered to companies and 53% (1.7m) to private operators, of whom the vast majority are men.

Company-owned vans are more likely to spend time collecting and delivering goods whereas privately-owned vans spend more time travelling to and from work – particularly those used by tradesmen. The greatest proportion of distance LCVs travel is in urban areas and LCVs are responsible for a quarter of the diesel but just 3% of the petrol used by motor vehicles in Britain (DfT).

The study claims LCV activity is the fastest growing of all vehicle groups and predicts LCV use will double in the 30 years to 2040.

Almost three quarters of collections and deliveries take place between 6am and 2pm and the meeting agreed it would be beneficial to increase the 5% that occur at night. While some argued ultra-quiet electric vans would suit this purpose others countered EVs would not offset the main disturbance at night time that comes from the opening and closing of doors during loading and unloading.

The research threw up an apparent contradiction in that, according to data sourced from the DfT, 39% of LCVs are inefficiently utilised as they are operated at less than a quarter of their payload capacity, with the average laden factor for all LCVs being just 38%.

However, a startling 89% of vans stopped by VOSA are found to be laden to above their legal weight.

One attendee of the seminar suggested VOSA targets vans it suspects of breaking the regulations and added that “it is easy to spot an overloaded van” by the way it rides.

Various reasons were given for the poor performance of LCVs at MoT with one-in-two failing the test first time.

It was pointed out that 40% of vans are unmarked with livery, so it is difficult to trace ownership and usage and many of these vehicles – particularly those operated by owner/drivers – are beyond the reach of best practice programmes, such as the FTA’s Van Excellence scheme. In addition it was noted that with smaller fleets there is no culture of regularly checking vans for roadworthiness before they go out on the road.

But the problem is not confined to small fleets, it was claimed that some of the leasing companies that supply big fleets do not always ensure their vans have passed the MoT.

Nevertheless the research indicated safety had improved with LCVs involved in only 5% (12,575) of reported road accidents in 2012, a 29% fall over 10 years.

One member of the meeting said this showed fleets are now better run while a more cynical view was that car-derived vans are not included in the figures.

A hot topic of debate was the role of electric vans. Opinions were polarised with one attendee labelling EVs a “distraction” from the more realistic means of improving efficiency through selecting more economical routes via the use of telematics and encouraging operators to fit vans with fuel-saving features such as stop/start systems and low rolling-resistance tyres.

Monitoring MPGs, as HGN operators do, would lead to huge efficiency gains, one attendee said but another argued that “electric vans are coming” and that to dispute this was to “put your head in the sand”.

One reason given for the slow take-up of electric vans was that public sector fleets are told to buy the cheapest models according to their sticker price rather than to their running costs over a number of years. The other stumbling block cited was payload and it was mooted that 5-tonne electric vans should be given a “payload dispensation” to enable them to operate under the same licensing rules as 3.5 tonne diesel vans.

It was widely agreed that increasing the number of urban low emission zones would drive down emissions but could hit businesses hard.