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

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 29th November 2021.

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Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 29th November 2021

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.