'Decarbonisation of Road Transport in Northern Ireland': Committee Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 29th November 2021.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Infrastructure on its inquiry into the decarbonisation of road transport in Northern Ireland [NIA 136/17-22]; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure and her Executive colleagues to implement the recommendations contained in the report. — [Mr Buckley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure).]

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I rise today as a relatively new member of the Infrastructure Committee. I am also our climate champion in the SDLP as well as our infrastructure spokesperson, so it will be no surprise to colleagues to hear that I am pleased that the Committee has been able to focus its time on this important report on decarbonising our transport here. Before I begin, I pay tribute to my colleague Dolores Kelly, my predecessor on the Committee, who put a lot of hard work into the report. I know that she will join me today in offering the support of us in the SDLP for decarbonisation and our intentions to see the report as a partnership between the Committee, the Minister and the wider Executive for delivering change to our society, our people and our environment and its urgent needs.

I thank the Chairman for his detailed contribution on the report, and there are a few aspects of that that I would like to draw out. I am sure it is accepted across the House that tackling the climate crisis is not one Department or Minister's responsibility; the weight of responsibility to deliver this lasting change rests firmly on all our shoulders. That said, we all recognise that transport is a massive emitter, and I know that that is an issue that, since coming into office, our Minister Mallon has worked tirelessly to address. While I will not rehearse all the Minister's actions to date, as, I am sure, she will provide us with more detail, I applaud the Minister's leadership on the issue.

It is frustrating and, frankly, embarrassing that the North is still without legislation to tackle the climate crisis. We truly need to get a move on. We want to see change as quickly as possible in order to reach net zero. We are leading the way at Westminster and here in government. At Westminster next month, the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, will introduce radical legislation to demand the rapid response that we need to protect our planet and our future generations here and to tackle that aspect of generational injustice surrounding climate change. In government here, our SDLP Minister, Minister Mallon, has been leading from the front. At the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26, she announced a task force to deliver more EV charging infrastructure and more investment in zero-emission buses. She has been greening her departmental fleet, has been making planning changes and has been clear that she has worked to ensure that the Executive's energy strategy has a focus on decarbonising transport, including measures to support modal shift, the electrification of transport, the use of alternative fuels in transport and the future of mobility. That all comes on top of the £20 million blue-green infrastructure funding, showing that our Minister is truly putting money where her mouth is. The best thing about the blue-green money is that it empowers local communities to create a shared space. Even in the face of a global pandemic, with the restart of vast operational public services, our Minister has continued to press for change. Notable areas include the establishment of a transport decarbonisation branch tasked with delivering on the ground on modal shift.

I could truly go on all day, and there really is a positive abundance of activity and delivery that the Minister and her Department have been working on. That deserves not only recognition but our support as a Statutory Committee. I welcome what much of the report seeks to achieve, and I can see that aligning with the Minister's priorities and policy direction. However, I want to mention again the energy strategy. While that is not for Minister Mallon — I understand that it sits with the Economy Minister — does Minister Mallon today have any information from the DUP Minister on where the energy strategy is and what it will potentially look like?

I cannot stress it enough that, if we are to deliver the change that our society deserves, we need to work together and to deliver. Any continued dither and delay on the energy strategy is not acceptable. We know what the Economy Minister is proposing, and I accept today that, in relation to the decarbonisation of transport, Minister Mallon wants to see the energy strategy come to the Executive for scrutiny.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I rise as the Ulster Unionist infrastructure spokesman to indicate my support for the report from the Committee on decarbonising Northern Ireland's road transport.

There has been much debate about greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, which is estimated to account for 26%, but our emissions come from many areas, including the home, energy supply, other land use and business. The second-largest area of greenhouse gas emissions, however, is transport. It was timely and appropriate for the Committee to investigate that area and to produce the report.

As part of the UK Government's commitment to reaching net zero by 2050 or earlier, they have determined that petrol and diesel cars will not be produced after 2030 and that production of hybrid cars will finish in 2035. Given the rurality of Northern Ireland, the relevance of the private car is that it is essential to many people living in the countryside, enabling them to do their work or to get to their work. Due to our limited public transport, there is a need for a mode of transport that everyone can use when they need it. There is also a need to update our transport strategy to refocus on a range of issues that can reduce our carbon output, such as walking, cycling, greater use of public transport and the decarbonisation of public transport, which has commenced with the introduction of electric and hydrogen-powered buses. We need to ensure, however, that private motorists can also contribute to reducing carbon output when necessary.

I express my appreciation to the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe). It conducted a survey on the use of electric and ultra-low-emission vehicles (ULEVs) on behalf of the Committee. That survey highlighted a huge gulf between climate change rhetoric and what is being delivered in practical terms in our community. Northern Ireland has the lowest proportion of electric charging points in the UK, but, worse than that, those charging points are unreliable. When I look at the figures, I see that Scotland has 32 charging points per 100,000 people, England has 22, Wales has 17 and Northern Ireland has 16.

Rapid chargers are essential to people who may need to top up their power quickly while travelling: Scotland has 7·5 per 100,000 people, England has 3·5, Wales has 1·8 and Northern Ireland has one per 100,000. There is clearly a long way to go; indeed, the lack of charging points and broken charging points are highlighted in the survey. That has transferred into range anxiety for many of those who already own an electric-charged car and has concerned those who may be considering switching. Comments include:

“The charging infrastructure in Northern Ireland is hopelessly outdated and virtually obsolete. Long distance journeys would be a nightmare.”

We must make sure that reliable infrastructure is in place if we are to support our community as it makes the transformation to electric-powered vehicles, and we are clearly not there at present. There is a long way to go.

I was in a village north of Inverness during the summer. It was a small village of, I estimate, 500 people, and there were four charging points in the public car park. I visited a garage, and there were charging points there. I was shocked. Our infrastructure is so far behind. It is vital that not only the Infrastructure Department but other Departments move. I have been posing questions about building regulations in particular. With new developments, why do we not build charging points? Building control regulations have been slow to change, but that is the most efficient way to do this. When you build a new apartment block or a new building, that infrastructure should be put in place. That will be cheaper in the long run and ensure lower carbon inputs when building that infrastructure. It is vital that we move forward together and that all Departments play their part.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I support the report's recommendations and ask others to do likewise.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

This has been a good-natured and constructive debate — for a change. Hopefully, I can contribute to that. From the perspective of the Alliance Party, the time to tackle the climate emergency is quickly running out. My party and I welcome the report, and, hopefully, the House will agree it.

One of the quickest and simplest ways in which to enact the report would be through funding Translink's plan for the decarbonisation of its road transport: remember that Translink is road and rail. Its clear plan is to move to net zero by 2040 and then to climate positive by 2050, but the reality, as we debate the motion today, is that we have a funding issue with Translink. There are questions about whether it will be able to be a going concern as a result of the non-allocation of funds during October monitoring. Although we are having the debate today, we need to be realistic. If we want people to move to decarbonised road transport, we need to fund our main public transport provider in Northern Ireland, which is Translink. I welcome the announcements that have been made to date about the full electrification of the urban fleet in the city of Derry/Londonderry and the further roll-out of hydrogen vehicles, but we must go further and fund Translink properly to deliver services on the ground in the here and now. We must also fund its plan to move to climate positive by 2050.

The report highlights the immediate impact that enhancements of active travel could have on transport. That is important. I welcome the actions that the Minister took last year on a walking and cycling champion, but, realistically, we need to invest an awful lot more in active travel in Northern Ireland. We are right down at the bottom of the investment league table when compared with the rest of the UK and Ireland. We also have to be realistic if we are going to call for investment in active travel. That will require taking difficult decisions about where we are going to put infrastructure in order to ensure that people have safe and sustainable travel routes. There is therefore a real need to look forward. The Alliance Party has been very clear that we need an active travel commissioner to drive forward that change, because substantial change is required.

I have been working with the Electric Vehicle Association Northern Ireland (EVANI), as have many others in the Chamber, for a long time. I genuinely appreciate the work that it has been doing to make electric vehicles more accessible to people in Northern Ireland. It has delivered quite significant achievements, as can be seen from recent announcements. A number of the report's findings and recommendations touch on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It is important that the recommendations be taken forward, particularly the ones on the used EV market. One of the biggest barriers to people's taking up of electric vehicles is the charging infrastructure. The cost of the vehicles is also an issue. The Committee recently heard evidence about how other jurisdictions have dealt with that. In Norway, for example, the cost of buying an electric vehicle is on a par with that of buying a petrol or diesel car. Intervention from the UK Government on taxation policy would be required so that people could consider that for here. The Alliance Party is clear about our support for electric vehicles and the decarbonisation of transport in our green new deal. Part of that is about providing interest-free loans for people who want to take up using an electric vehicle. Furthermore, I presented a public petition to the Minister last month about the need for a joined-up strategy to drive improvements in the charging infrastructure. We really need that. The recent announcement by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) about new chargers, as well as the announcements from EasyGo and other providers, are therefore welcome.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member agree that, although it is very welcome that new chargers are being put in place, it is vital also to have maintenance contracts in place to ensure that chargers will be replaced when needed rather than be left defunct and for those who have electric vehicles to have confidence that chargers will work?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I entirely agree with the Member. The worst thing about having an electric vehicle is not being able to charge it when it needs charged. It is a nightmare. That fear puts a lot of people off even considering an electric vehicle. There are many examples in Northern Ireland of people turning up to the charger and it not working. That needs to be resolved.

The issue about how the market is regulated and the pricing of the market needs to be considered. The ESB network is currently free of charge. We need to move to a system in which there is a charge. Let us be honest: if the charger is free of charge, where is people's disincentive to take their vehicle away after a period? Many people leave it there for hours, during which time other people cannot access the charger. Those issues need to be addressed. That is why a coordinated, joined-up strategy is needed. I agree with the Member about the energy strategy. Where is it? We need to see the strategy for many different reasons, not just for today but because of the cost-of-living crisis.

I very conscious of two issues about electric vehicles. The first concerns how substances are sourced for the production of electric vehicles in an environmentally sustainable way and ensuring that good labour practices are observed. The second is about how we deal with waste from electric vehicles. The industry is not doing very well in that regard — it is actually doing appallingly — and needs to do much better in how it sources the materials and how it disposes of them.

The last area is hydrogen. We have talked an awful lot about electric, but I had the pleasure of meeting representatives of Hydrogen NI last week. That is something that we need to be looking for, but it has to be green hydrogen: grey hydrogen should not be acceptable. There has to be green hydrogen, and that requires us to improve the infrastructure across Northern Ireland, particularly in regard to public transport and the logistics industry. That will help us power a decarbonised future.

I welcome the report. It is good that we can come together in the Chamber to constructively debate these things.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I support the motion, as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on transport. I pay tribute, as others have, to the departmental officials and the research team who put a tremendous amount of work into this important report. The report is very timely as we have just had COP26. It is clear to all that the climate crisis is no longer in the distant future: it is upon us and it must be tackled imminently. Failure to do so will harm our communities and the future generations, and we all have a part to play.

As others have said, our most common methods of transport account for 23% of emissions in the North. Those emissions are linked to a range of medical conditions, and there is no doubt that air pollution is a serious public health issue. It is inevitable that we must transform the way that we travel and work towards cleaner and greener transport, but to do that we need to have the adequate infrastructure in place. One key way of moving towards reducing emissions is to ensure that we have a high-quality public transport system in place and encourage more people to use public transport as part of their daily lives by improving accessibility to it, thereby reducing reliance on the private car.

My constituency has a vast rural area, and one of the main barriers to using public transport for people who live in rural communities is the lack of connectivity to the nearby towns and cities. That results in many having no choice but to rely on their car and, subsequently, contributing to the challenging situation in which we find ourselves as regards emissions and the climate crisis. There needs to be an overhaul of our bus and rail network by cutting journey times and increasing services. That should include improving the Belfast to Dublin rail service, which is used by many commuters and could be used by more if it was more frequent. Similarly, we must see the urgent reinstatement of the hourly stop in Newry by the Belfast to Dublin bus services, which is an important route for people who travel to and from Dublin Airport. That has been a huge loss, particularly as we approach the Christmas period, when many people will be returning home to Ireland for the first time in two years to be with their families and friends. Those people will have no choice but to travel to and from the airport by car due to the lack of capacity in the current service. If we are serious about decarbonising the road transport system, we need to show greater efficiency and effectiveness in the current service provision and ensure that there are no unnecessary gaps in the public transport system.

Similarly, active travel must play a key role in any forthcoming green transport policy. We are acutely aware of the huge benefits that walking and cycling bring to the health and well-being of society on an individual basis and environmentally. Although many people are keen to engage in more active travel, there are simply too many barriers to prevent them from doing so. Safety for pedestrians and cyclists must be paramount, and we must not just pay lip service to that well-known fact. Just last week, we saw World Day of Remembrance for Road Victims, which acts as a significant reminder of the very high number of people, including many pedestrians and cyclists, who have, sadly, lost their lives on our roads. Although that is not always directly linked to the infrastructure, it is imperative that better and safer infrastructure is in place to reduce the number of people who are seriously injured or killed on our roads and encourage and enable more people to take up active travel.

Across my constituency of Newry and Armagh, there are many keen walking and cycling enthusiasts who are increasingly frustrated by the lack of appropriate active-travel infrastructure to enable them to utilise their preferred mode of transport. We need more footpaths and cycle lanes for proper connectivity to our town centres and key facilities, particularly in rural communities, which are severely lacking in both. I welcome the blue-green infrastructure fund, which has been very successful in helping to address that.

Street lighting is also an important factor. As the Minister will know, one example that I raised recently was in relation to the Bog Road in Forkhill, which is the main connecting route between Peadar Ó'Dornín's GAA club and Forkhill Community Centre. Current policies make that location ineligible for street lighting, despite the high numbers of pedestrians, particularly young people, who are going to and coming from the facilities every day.

It will contradict everything that we are discussing today if we do not take on board the important elements that need to be in place for all ages to take up active travel and to do so confidently. Encouraging uptake of active travel must be from the earliest stage possible, as it will require a cultural shift. That can be demonstrated by the findings of the young persons' behaviour and attitudes survey on travelling to and from school published in 2020. The survey indicated that only 3% of students in the North cycle to their school, despite living less than 3 km from it. That is in stark contrast to the findings of European studies on the same topic that have shown that approximately one-third of students cycle to and from school.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

It is important that we gain a better insight into why active travel works so well on the continent and transfer that learning to any forthcoming green transport policy and active travel legislation.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

By all accounts, this report is a robust and cross-cutting piece of work. It cements what we already know about the need for a commitment to sustainable, green travel and about the impact that air pollution can have on health.

I will touch on three key areas of the report. The first is public transport. At the minute, public transport does not meet its purpose, particularly in my constituency of Derry. I have heard a lot of Members talking about rural constituencies; I want to talk about my experience in a more urban constituency. In Derry, there is a lack of bus lanes; buses and trains run at irregular times; and there is a lack of connecting services between the two. The Derry to Belfast line in particular does not meet demand at all. We have seen overcrowding, particularly in the past number of months with COVID. We really need to look at that. To start work in Belfast at 9.30 am, you have to leave Derry at 6.15 am. That is not feasible, and it is certainly not acceptable.

We need to improve the services that we have. We are willing and happy to work with the Minister to put in place, encourage and drive the changes that need to happen. We need to see the desire and commitment to deliver on the A5 and on the decarbonisation of the road network and, particularly, the rail network, because the rail network offers us an opportunity to open up the entire west. As Members well know, you can look at a map of the North and cut it in two: the west is completely neglected for rail. We really need to change that. It is time to open up the west and, in particular, to deliver on the commitment to an all-Ireland rail service by working with the Government in the South. The Wild Atlantic Way, for instance, is a massive tourist attraction, but it is not serviced at all by rail. As a Committee and as an Assembly, we need to take that on board and look at it, because there is a real opportunity to change it.

My second point is on active travel. As a primary-school teacher, I was always very aware of and involved in Walk to School Week. Although it is a fantastic initiative that highlights and emphasises the importance of active travel, it happens only once a year and is perhaps forgotten about during the rest of the year. A number of people talked about education on active travel, and that needs to be a core tenet. We need longer-term solutions, and cycle lanes in particular, across the North. It is fantastic to see them in Belfast and in certain areas of Derry that are more built up, but, as my colleague Liz said, we need to see them across the North so that everybody has access to them. Some €360 million is going towards active travel this year in the South, but there is only £13 million in the North. The comparison is stark. We need a solution for our families and our young people in order to build a framework and, indeed, a mindset for active travel in the future.

My last point — it has been mentioned a lot by other Members, so I will touch on it only briefly — is on electric vehicles. Members have mentioned what is unattractive about them; let us look at what we can do better and how we can work better, particularly with ESB on charging ports. I do not want to rehearse what has already been said about the need to develop and increase the number of ports across the North. ESB definitely has a lot of work to do, and I look forward, as part of the Committee, to meeting ESB and working together on the issue.

I commend the report.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:00 pm, 29th November 2021

I thank the Committee for its diligence in bringing this valuable report before the Assembly. As my colleague Roy Beggs said, the Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the report. We particularly wish to see decarbonisation of our transport network and, indeed, decarbonisation, full stop. I declare an interest, as I, too, was at COP26. I was particularly interested in what our nation is doing about getting to net zero carbon as quickly as we can, the effort that is being put into decarbonisation and the importance of the move towards EVs. However, there are some fundamental issues that I would like the Minister to address.

We have already alluded to the first issue, which is the situation with the ESB and the electric charging system across Northern Ireland. Frankly, it is an utter disgrace, and the fact that it has reached that point should concern everybody in the Assembly.

Secondly — this is a significant point — I want to send a message to the Finance Minister — I make another declaration of interest as Chair of the Finance Committee — that we are in charge of building regulations. In the rest of our nation, we have already seen a push towards making sure that every building that will be built or modified by 2030 will have to have electric charging points built into its design. As an Assembly, we should ensure that that happens, and I give my commitment as Chair of the Finance Committee that I will push the Finance Minister to make sure that we get to that position, but we need the support of all Executive Ministers. Many of us have seen today the less than stellar performance of unity amongst the Executive, but it is vital that the Economy Minister, the Infrastructure Minister and the Finance Minister work closely together to make sure that we achieve that. It can be achieved, and we should do it.

I welcome the Minister's remarks today about the Union connectivity report. Speaking as probably the only Member of the Assembly who has been at the bottom of Beaufort's Dyke, although not intentionally, I have to say that Boris's bridge or tunnel was a non-starter, but what is important is Union connectivity and making sure that we have proper infrastructure that meets our decarbonisation targets.

There are opportunities here to improve road infrastructure. I would really like to hear what the Minister has to say about the York Street interchange because, yet again, we have heard nothing about what is happening with that. That deals with the connectivity to the ports, which is vital and needs to be looked at.

One Member talked about the importance of green hydrogen. I agree that we cannot have grey or blue hydrogen; we need green hydrogen.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. While the focus of the report is on EV in particular, I share the Member's enthusiasm for the potentially exciting market of green hydrogen in Northern Ireland. Will he agree that there is still a lot of concern among green hydrogen enthusiasts about how slowly our planning system is adapting to that growing market? The Committee visited Wrightbus just two weeks ago. There is huge potential in the market, but it feels that planning and the Department simply do not move quickly enough to meet the needs of that exciting sector.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member for his remarks. He could have just stopped at "planning". We do not need to talk about green hydrogen because we have real, significant issues with our planning system across Northern Ireland. It is an impediment to getting our economy going again, and it needs to be looked at urgently.

Green hydrogen gives us a great opportunity. We have talked an awful lot about the decarbonisation of our whole network, but one of the most significant things that we could do is use Belfast and Larne ports as centres for hydrogen bunkering for shipping. In the Baltic, we have seen a push towards zero-emission shipping. We should push for the same thing across the Irish Sea. We should use Belfast and Larne as hubs to do that. We should also incentivise the shipping industry to move to the use of hydrogen to do it. While we are at it, Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to be a centre for sustainable aviation fuel not just for the domestic market but for the transatlantic market. That would give us the opportunity to be market leaders and to be leaders as we push towards decarbonisation.

I think that everybody in the Assembly agrees that the most important piece that we need to get to is to have a fit-for-purpose EV charging network across Northern Ireland. However, that needs to be part of a major move towards the decarbonisation of what we have. We have opportunities here. We see what is happening across the rest of our nation. We should grasp those opportunities. Sir Peter Hendy talks in his report about having the ability to tap into funding and resources. We should do that as well. We should not allow financial transactions capital (FTC) to go back. We should use that £66 million. We should hold the likes of ESB to account to make sure that they deliver what they are supposed to. We have to make difficult decisions. Yes, we will have to go for charging and the rest of it. Anybody who has driven on the motorway network in the rest of our nation and has pulled in and seen 20 or 30 Tesla or other charging points knows that it is doable. It can be done. We have to do it.

Minister, you have the commitment of the Ulster Unionist Party. We will be behind you when you make those changes. All that we need is the courage to go ahead and do it. Rather than talking about it, let us do it.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I wish to make some remarks as the Alliance Party's environment spokesperson in addition to the comments made already by my colleague Andrew Muir.

The restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 have had a widespread impact on people's lives, including changes to their transport behaviours. Global road transport activity was almost 50% below the 2019 average by the end of March 2020, and commercial flight activity almost 75% below that of 2019 by mid-April 2020. Changing patterns of work, shopping and business travel as a result of the pandemic have provided an opportunity and can be a catalyst for a shift towards more sustainable transport behaviours, avoiding a return to pre-crisis behaviours. However, that will require Governments to take decisive actions to limit transport energy use. While the current health crisis is unparalleled in the scale of impacts and government responses, examining past crises can be instructive in informing policy to incentivise sustainable behaviours as we go forward.

The transition to a carbon-neutral transport system brings new opportunities that are highlighted in the report. Creating a sustainable transport industry filled with well-paid, secure green jobs will simultaneously combat the climate emergency and inequality through investment. That investment will create meaningful modal change, support equal opportunities, reduce social exclusion and break down the socio-economic transport divide. Chronic underinvestment in public transport has created a highly car-dependent society in Northern Ireland. Significant infrastructure investment is vital for a clean, sustainable transport system that works for everyone.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Is he, like me, somewhat heartened by the representation from Members from Sinn Féin on the importance and value of public transport? Would he welcome their intervention with the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, to urge him to pony up some money to enable some of those aspirations to be met?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Member for her intervention, and I would certainly support any investment support for public transport, especially in constituencies such as mine, which contribute heavily to commuter traffic into city areas.

If we are serious about a green recovery, there is no option: Northern Ireland must contribute to UK and international commitments, move to decarbonise our existing transport networks and make significant infrastructure investment enhancements in relation to active travel, greenways and reducing car use. That is vital to the transition to a clean, sustainable transport system that works for everyone. I thank the Committee for its report, which is a significant step forward in driving that collaborative effort.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I pay tribute, as others have done, to the researchers and, indeed, Committee staff for all their hard work to get us this far. It took a lot of effort, given the change in Committee business to deal with the COVID pandemic and some of the issues that arose from it. I also pay tribute to the former Chairperson of the Committee, Michelle McIlveen, who was determined to see the report tabled. It contains important recommendations, which many Members have referenced, but it also acknowledges the fact that the outworkings and actioning of those recommendations will depend on Executive collaboration. I am an optimist on the day that is in it. I hope that, eventually, the penny will drop amongst all the Executive parties that, if we are all to benefit for the greater good, collaboration, power-sharing and working together are the only way ahead to make all the wonderful recommendations reality.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I agree with the Member. Will she agree that seeing the recommendations enacted requires funding and that prevention is better than cure when it comes to health? Funding high-speed rail links between Derry, Belfast, Dublin and Cork and all the other things will require intervention as part of the three-year Budget settlement that is coming forward.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I acknowledge the importance of the intervention by Mr Muir. We can all go on about the lighting on roads and street lighting for active travel, but that will not happen unless there is significant investment in infrastructure.

I heard Ms Kimmins refer specifically to a GAA club. I have a GAA club — the Wolfe Tones — that asked for street lighting on the Derrymacash Road and was turned down by Conor Murphy a number of years ago. We have not heard people say, either in the past or in the current Budget round, what their party will demand be delivered. It will require significant investment from the Executive. Dr Aiken referred to the failed Boris bridge, and one hopes that some of the funding that might have been set aside for that will reach these shores for building rail connectivity and assisting in the decarbonisation of our vehicles.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I want to put a couple of things on record, and then I will see about giving way at the end.

On the SDLP's commitment to deal with the climate crisis, no one can fault our aspirations and actions at Westminster, in the Assembly and, indeed, in the work of Nichola Mallon, whether she is in charge of her portfolio or in looking beyond these shores at good practice elsewhere. Only today, she has been working closely with Minister Eamon Ryan on an all-Ireland rail network. Members are right to point out the deficits west of the Bann and how people there have been failed by the short-sighted closure of many of our railway networks. Nichola Mallon is picking up that challenge. Also this week, Colum Eastwood's Climate Change Bill is subject to debate and further progress at Westminster. We have supported other parties here, and, at some point in the new year, I hope to bring my nature restoration Bill to the Floor. It deals with measures to improve air quality, air pollution and the health of the nation and to restore nature and the environment in which we all live and have so valued over the last couple of years in the pandemic.

It is fair to acknowledge that the report can be a driver for change, and it should be seen as key to our partnership with the Minister and the wider Executive. We welcome the fact that the Minister and her Department will look closely at the recommendations and at what more we can do together. We know that Minister Mallon has put forward options for the decarbonisation of transport through the energy strategy. While that is not a matter for Minister Mallon, we want to know, as others have said, from the Economy Minister and the wider Executive where the energy strategy is. If we are to deliver the change that our society deserves, we need to work together and deliver not just for this generation but for future generations.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 4:15 pm, 29th November 2021

Like others, I thank the Committee for producing the report. This is a great discussion and is exactly what we should do as an Assembly, but I do not want to go over the many points and issues that have been raised. The report is pretty damning about the state of our infrastructure system. That should be absolutely no shock to anybody who has been paying attention.

Transport is the second-highest sector for emissions. At exactly the same time as car usage should be decreasing, transport emissions are increasing and car dependency is rising. That is not just about the current Minister for Infrastructure — Minister, I feel your pain — but it is the failure of successive Ministers, Executives and Governments who have failed to prioritise and fund the necessary investment in our transport system. The Audit Office tells us that DFI needs £1·2 billion just to bring the road network up to standard: not to transform, improve or reach net zero but to stand still. That is the extent of the neglect with which we are dealing.

I caution anyone reading the report that EVs are absolutely no panacea. There is little acknowledgement in the report of the emissions from car production, and, while those emissions may not be recorded here, that does not give us the green light to ignore them.

The report acknowledges the immediate impacts that could be achieved if we focused on short-term, targeted investment in our existing network, and yet we have no active travel infrastructure worth talking about. One per cent of journeys here are by bicycle compared with 70% by car. The majority of journeys in Belfast city are less than 2 miles, but we have little over 2 miles of protected cycle lanes in the city as a whole. Is it any wonder that most people are not engaged? We need to spend a wee bit more than £2 a head on active travel. We need to stop building roads and to start building cycle lanes. We need to give priority to buses on all routes and urgently expand public transport networks to ensure that they are properly integrated with active transport and connect people with place. We must, of course, make that affordable, which our current public transport costs are not.

I hope that the report will signal a change in how we operate, but you will have to excuse me if I am cynical. I do not think that it will. We have seen a lack of ambition in the past year alone. While other places have grabbed the opportunity that COVID presented to transform the use of public space, we have managed a couple of pop-up cycle lanes and given about half a dozen car parking spaces for a parklet. A Department lodged an objection to a planning application to extend pavements outside its offices to improve public spaces for people. The Department objected because it did not want to lose the parking spaces at its front door: I kid you not. I am scundered for us.

I put it to all those who have said the right things in the Chamber today: do more. If we take anything from COP26, let it be that words count for nothing if we do not take action. That goes beyond DFI; it goes to the heart of every Department and what they do to ensure that we transition to a sustainable, inclusive society today. I call on them all to start taking green action and to stop talking and greenwashing. We have really waited long enough.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Anois, glaoim ar an Aire Bonneagair le freagra a thabhairt ar an díospóireact. A Aire, tá suas le 15 bomaite agat. I now call the Minister for Infrastructure to respond to the debate. Minister, you have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Committee for Infrastructure for undertaking this important inquiry. I thank the Chairperson and the Committee members who have spoken in this important debate on the decarbonisation of road transport. The debate is timely, following COP26.

As Minister for Infrastructure, I am focused on doing what I can to tackle the climate crisis, including addressing emissions from road transport. I have listened carefully to Members' views. As several Members outlined during the debate, road transport is a key contributor to emissions and energy use. As the inquiry report rightly identifies, if we are to reach net zero targets, simply switching to electric vehicles will not be enough; it will also require reducing the number of vehicles on roads and promoting alternative modes of transport such as walking, wheeling, cycling and public transport.

Mr Boylan talked about his concerns that the report will become another strategy that is left to sit on a shelf to gather dust. I assure Members that my Department has been taking action on a number of fronts and in line with the recommendations in the report.

The first recommendation is that the Department update its strategies, polices and investment plans with a clear net zero focus. In June of this year, I published 'Planning for the Future of Transport: Time for Change', which clearly sets out my views on how we in Northern Ireland should follow a sustainable, hierarchical approach to achieving a better transport network. I assure the Committee and other Members that I am committed to developing policies and plans that will deliver a long-term plan for cleaner, greener transport in Northern Ireland. My commitments will be set out in the forthcoming Executive energy strategy, to which my Department has been contributing as transport lead and which will support the Executive's green growth agenda. While my Department is not responsible for bringing it to the Executive and then forward for publication, it is my sincere hope that the energy strategy will be published before the end of this year, as it is a critical part of how we tackle the climate emergency and address the energy crisis.

I move now to the report's second recommendation. Earlier this year, I established a dedicated transport decarbonisation branch with new personnel in the Department's transport policy directorate to take forward this work. I have made the promotion of sustainable transport a priority. Members will know that I have identified that, out of the allocation of £20 million for the blue-green fund, £13·5 million will be spent this year on active travel projects across the North and on providing support to councils for greenways and other cycling measures. I also published the Belfast cycling network plan earlier this year, and I have promoted walking, wheeling and cycling as the first choices in modes of travel to benefit the environment and people's physical and mental health.

The inquiry report also rightly recognises that there is a need to prioritise low-emission, comfortable, coherent public transport in order to encourage its use. That is particularly the case as we continue to build back from the effects of the COVID pandemic. In December 2020, we introduced the first hydrogen-powered double-decker buses into public service. Three new hydrogen fuel cell buses were introduced as part of a zero-emission bus pilot project powered by green — that is important — renewably produced hydrogen. I have also provided funding of around £74 million for the purchase of 145 zero- and low-emission buses that have entered and will continue to enter the Translink fleet during this year and next. Of those, 80 will be electric-powered buses, while 20 will be hydrogen-fuelled. Plans are in place to have all bus services in Northern Ireland operated by zero-emission vehicles by 2040.

I want to respond to the points that Mr Muir, in particular, raised around funding. It will require substantial investment if we are to do this and get it right. In October monitoring, not a penny was allocated to Translink, and the indications are that that may also be the case in January monitoring. That presents a challenge for me as the Minister for Infrastructure, to the Committee and to the House, because it will then be about trying to ensure the survival of our existing public transport network, which, as Members have rightly identified, should be significantly increased and enhanced. I sincerely hope that we do not find ourselves in that position in January monitoring, because we need sufficient resource funding to maintain and protect the current network.

We should absolutely be ambitious in expanding network provision, particularly for our rural communities, and in ensuring that we deliver a zero-emission fleet. In line with that commitment, Members will be aware that I recently announced £30 million of additional investment to replace the Foyle Metro fleet with zero-emission battery electric buses. I am proud to say that that will make Derry one of the first cities across these islands to have a zero-emission urban bus fleet. In addition, earlier this year, I announced the launch of the all-island strategic rail review to consider how the rail network on the island of Ireland can improve sustainable connectivity across the island and improve the environment. Today, I am delighted to launch the public consultation element of the all-island strategic rail review, which will give citizens, businesses and communities the opportunity to have their say on their ambitions for rail across the island.

My Department continues to promote car sharing and the use of public transport through the ongoing expansion of park-and-ride and park-and-share sites and to explore integration with active travel options. Reducing our journeys and maximising our modal shift to walking, wheeling, cycling and sustainable transport is the first step to reducing emissions from transport. However, not all journeys can be done in that way, as Members have rightly pointed out. On behalf of the Executive, I was pleased to endorse the Glasgow declaration on zero-emission cars and vans announced at COP26 to accelerate the transition to 100% zero-emission cars and vans.

I turn to recommendations 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the report. Members will know that, to drive things forward, I recently announced the establishment of an EV infrastructure task force. That group will help us to deliver a modern, reliable, public electric vehicle charging infrastructure to provide confidence to users of ultra-low-emission vehicles. It will comprise public- and private-sector organisations working together over the next year, and it will, as the report has rightly acknowledged, include representation from EV owners and energy and local government sectors to consider the actions that are required to address some of the barriers identified in the inquiry report.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. I welcome the task force, because I think that all Members, both in the report and their contributions, noted the dire state of the charging infrastructure. We all need to get behind that in order to advance it.

The Minister mentioned hydrogen, and, obviously, it is a key commitment for her, and it is an exciting development. Will the Minister consider, perhaps, a hydrogen task force to look at the issues pertaining to that industry, particularly in its fledgling years, to ensure that we have the infrastructure in place to meet the need?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

When it comes to the green growth strategy, on which DAERA leads, a group of Ministers convened to discuss a range of issues previously. One of those issues was hydrogen. My understanding is that we are due to reconvene. I have no doubt that hydrogen will be discussed, given its importance to the environment but also the economy.

I will continue to engage with Executive colleagues and the British Government in respect of funding to support the development of the EV infrastructure network. Recently, ESB has been successful in securing £3·27 million from the Levelling Up Fund to expand and enhance the network across Northern Ireland. I am keen for councils to access the £20 million of on-street residential charging funding that is available. As Members will know, to incentivise councils to apply, I have set aside £350,000 of match funding. My officials will work with the councils, so that 100% of their capital costs will be covered when they make a successful application.

I am supportive of the move by organisations to green their fleets, particularly in the public sector, because there is a responsibility to lead by example, but I recognise the current challenges with vehicles that are harder to decarbonise, including HGVs. Members will also know that I have encouraged Executive colleagues to lead by example by switching to electric ministerial vehicles. I made that choice when I took up my post. If the Executive were to do that, it would send a strong and positive message about our commitment to helping others to make the switch. In addition, my Department has purchased electric vehicles as part of a pilot project. That will allow us to assess the suitability of electric vehicles to meet operational needs, with a view to replacing other vehicles in our fleet with low-emission vehicles in the future.

The Department is also working to reduce diesel emissions from the Strangford ferry service entering the environment, and I have provided £1·36 million from the blue-green fund to assist community transport organisations to assess the feasibility of using electric vehicles for the services that they provide to communities across Northern Ireland. That is in addition to providing financial support to enable the people of Rathlin to have access to e-bikes and a greener community car, because I want to do what I can to support the people of Rathlin in realising their ambition to be carbon-neutral.

Where possible, my Department will continue to facilitate demonstration projects of alternatively fuelled vehicles in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to liaise with other jurisdictions, including through the British-Irish Council transport working group, to learn from their pilot projects and trials, because that shared learning is very important.

The decarbonisation of road transport will mean behavioural change that will have an impact on everyone. I welcome the Committee's support in bringing those changes forward. I assure the Committee that I will consider the inquiry report and its recommendations carefully and that I am genuinely committed to working with the Committee and Members throughout the House, and with communities, in order to ensure that we make the positive progress that is required if we are to tackle the climate emergency.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:30 pm, 29th November 2021

I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure, David Hilditch, who will have up to 10 minutes to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the motion.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I thank all Members, Committee members and those outside it, who have contributed this afternoon; it is much appreciated. I also thank the Minister for her attendance and her contribution. In particular, the Committee staff and the Assembly's researchers all deserve a big thank-you for carrying out the donkey work and the spadework behind the report.

Many contributors to the debate have talked about the urgency for action on the issue, and they are correct; this is an urgent matter. Although the deadline for the banning of petrol and diesel vehicles is 2030, it will be upon us much quicker than we think. The development of our infrastructure takes time, and we must act now in order to be ready. The report and its recommendations are a call on government to take the issue seriously and to begin to plan.

The Committee for Infrastructure's report outlines the challenges and obstacles that are ahead for us, but it also highlights examples of what can be done through a willingness to plan and invest. As part of its inquiry, the Committee carried out a survey of the public, and we spoke in particular to the owners of electric vehicles. From that work, it was made very clear to the Committee that our charging infrastructure is not fit for purpose and needs urgent action. I am aware that, over the last number of days, ESB has received money from the Levelling Up Fund in order to enhance its charging network. That is something that we have called for in the report, and I am delighted to welcome that move. However, more needs to be done at government level, and we need policies for the planning and integration of home charging points. We need financial assistance for individuals who purchase electric vehicles, and we need a willingness from government to move to electric fleets themselves in order to show that they take these issues very seriously.

The recommendations from the Committee for Infrastructure's inquiry are based on a central point, which is to meet the challenges of the 2030 and 2035 deadlines. That will require a unified effort. We will need a strategy across Departments and councils as well as businesses and local communities. In its report and recommendations, the Committee calls for a plan. I believe that those who are considering investing in electric vehicles would take comfort from seeing a plan coming out of government that showed the direction of travel and a strong commitment to what they will put in place and for when. That in itself will stimulate an uptake in electric vehicles. The public will take confidence from seeing government adopting those new technologies and will see that it is not just a flash in the pan.

The Department for Infrastructure will need to know where it wants to end up on the issue and to have that embedded in all of its work. It is also important that the development of the electric vehicle charging infrastructure is supplemented with an increasing push to develop public transport by rail and bus, with and the development of opportunities for active travel. Where we get to in 2030 could be completely different from what we have now. Done badly, we could have electric cars, public transport and active travel all in competition with one another for support from the Government and the public, with none of them doing anything really well. I can see that the work is ongoing on the issue, and I was delighted to hear the Minister's commitments this afternoon. I support that action, but, as is so often said in the House, it needs to be joined up, with a well-planned end point for what we are trying to achieve.

I will now make some comments of my own as a member of the Democratic Unionist Party. The shift in public transport away from diesel towards alternative energies has been a party commitment of ours for many years. That is a core component of the energy strategy, which, hopefully, will be delivered by our Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons. It is unacceptable that, compared with the recommendation of the independent Climate Change Committee, Northern Ireland has only a third of the total number of rapid charging points and top-up chargers for electric vehicles. Even where those are in place, there are concerns about a postcode lottery. There is quite clearly a disjointed approach to the infrastructure, particularly in my home town of Carrickfergus, where charging points can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, from research, I believe that there is only one, at the railway station. Ultimately, if commuters and businesses are to have the confidence to take a leap of faith, they need to be able to benefit from a fully resourced, joined-up and well-maintained charging infrastructure right across our Province.

It is essential that electric charging points be required as part of planning for new homes — a number of Members mentioned that — and office developments. With better and earlier interventions, there is an opportunity to drive forward the uptake of electric-powered vehicles, and ingrain that within community development plans. It most certainly requires the Executive to focus on policies that reduce the financial and non-financial barriers to electric car uptake, that do not let sections of society slip through the cracks and that ensure cooperation between various Departments and agencies to see maximum benefit throughout the community.

Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to use renewable electricity to produce green hydrogen. This would make use of the wind that is available when demand for electricity is lower. We want to see our Province become a world leader in the development of electrolysis, hydrogen fuel and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles for which there will be a rapidly growing demand worldwide.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Will my colleague agree that Wrightbus in Ballymena, which the Committee had the pleasure of visiting recently, is leading the way in manufacturing hydrogen buses?

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

Thanks for that, George. Unfortunately, I was not able to get to that due to other commitments but, having spoken to the Chairman, I know that it was a positive visit.

The new Hydrogen Training Academy, to be based at Silverwood Business Park in Ballymena, is to receive £511,000 from the UK Government's Community Renewal Fund (CRF). With hydrogen emerging as a leading sustainable energy solution, this first-of-its-kind project for Northern Ireland will enable and develop a dynamic, skilled workforce that can take advantage of hydrogen and clean tech opportunities. The academy is one of 31 projects across Northern Ireland set to benefit from a total of £12 million in CRF funding, all focusing on skills, education, local business and employment.

Skills strategies will be important if we are to exploit emerging green technologies with the transport sector and the public sector more generally. Training and upskilling young people must be at the heart of this. My constituency of East Antrim has long been a powerhouse in supplying electricity to the Northern Ireland economy. The power stations at Kilroot and Ballylumford on the coast have long supplied the majority of Northern Ireland's electricity needs. EP UK Investments Ltd took over the plants in late 2019, and is transitioning to a new, cleaner source of generation involving the integration of renewables. The Kilroot plant, near Carrickfergus, is the location for a planned green energy park with investment of some £600 million, incorporating a range of technologies and applications.

As Deputy Chair of the Committee, I fully welcome the Committee report. It is one of the many steps that the Assembly must take to create a more sustainable, cleaner and environmentally friendly future for all. I commend the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Infrastructure on its inquiry into the decarbonisation of road transport in Northern Ireland [NIA 136/17-22]; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure and her Executive colleagues to implement the recommendations contained in the report.