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

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 29th November 2021.

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Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP 4:30 pm, 29th November 2021

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.