During Assembly proceedings yesterday Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon provided some interesting updates on EV charging issues here. The text from the Hansard is pasted below, with some of the most relevant points in bold, or watch the video below from around 3.50:30…
Monday 15 November 2021
British-Irish Council: Transport
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she wishes to make a statement. Fuair muid fógra ón Aire Bonneagair gur mhaith léi ráiteas a dhéanamh.
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, and in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement to the Assembly on the British-Irish Council (BIC) ministerial meeting of the transport work sector that was held on 22 October. Before I do, I offer an apology to Members: due to an administrative error by my private office, this statement was delayed; it was due to take place last week. I apologise for the inconvenience that was caused to Members as a result of that error.
To ensure that there was appropriate community representation at the meeting, Members will note that junior Minister Middleton was also in attendance. He is aware that I am making this statement to the Assembly.
Members will be aware that the British-Irish Council, which was established in 1999, is a forum for its members to discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of its member Administrations. The British-Irish Council transport work sector is chaired by the Northern Ireland Executive. The group has proved to be a constructive forum for facilitating thematic evidence exchange and practical collaboration as Administrations seek to decarbonise transport. The meeting of the transport work sector was particularly timely; it allowed Ministers to take stock, in advance of COP26 in Glasgow, of the ongoing efforts across these islands.
As I have highlighted, the Executive were represented at the ministerial meeting by me and junior Minister Middleton. The Government of Guernsey were represented by Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez, President of the Committee for the Environment and Infrastructure. The Government of Ireland were represented by Mr Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. The Isle of Man Government were represented by Tim Crookall, Minister for Infrastructure. The Government of Jersey were represented by Deputy Kevin Lewis, Minister for Infrastructure. The Scottish Government were represented by Mr Graeme Dey MSP, Minister for Transport. The UK Government were represented by Trudy Harrison MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport. The Welsh Government were represented by Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Climate Change.
During the meeting, Ministers considered a paper that had been prepared by the work sector on the electrification of vehicles and discussed how that transition will make a key contribution towards the decarbonisation of transport and to achieving the efficient and cleaner movement of people and goods across BIC member Administrations. Ministers shared experiences and perspectives on pathways towards the electrification of vehicles, including aspects such as charging infrastructure and supporting the transition to electric vehicles through financial and fiscal mechanisms.
Ministers noted and agreed the content of the forward work plan for the transport work sector, which will support all Administrations’ efforts towards addressing climate change and decarbonisation, and which identifies the areas of focus for the work sector for the next three years as modal shift and the decarbonisation of public-sector transport and the freight fleet. With the declaration of a climate emergency across many Administrations and the commitment to achieving net zero, the need to increase the urgency of efforts to address climate change is a shared priority. Member Administrations are in accordance that an intensive programme of decarbonisation is required to meet those targets, including in the transport sector as it is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions.
We, as an Assembly, have committed to taking action to tackle the climate crisis and reduce emissions across all sectors, including transport. In that context, the British-Irish Council continues to offer an essential framework for sharing challenges and best practice across the Administrations.
Finally, I place on record my appreciation to the ministerial colleagues across the BIC member Administrations who participated so productively in the ministerial meeting. I look forward to learning about the outcomes that arise from the transport forward work programme and the associated ministerial meeting, which should take place in 2023. I am happy to take questions from Members in respect of the ministerial meeting.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. Questions on the statement will begin after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be the Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure, Jonathan Buckley.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
British-Irish Council: Transport
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Glaoim ar Cathal Boylan chun cainte. I call Cathal Boylan.
There is the Chair now. You are on time, Johnny. I will give you a minute to get settled. Are you OK?
Mr Buckley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My apologies, but I was caught up in another meeting about the Southern Trust. As that was the issue, I know that the Minister will not mind.
I thank the Minister for her statement. This is a huge issue for the Committee, which has just completed an inquiry into decarbonisation of road transport. The Minister’s statement referred to a paper prepared by the transport work sector on the electrification of vehicles. Can the Committee and the Assembly be provided with that paper, or will she expand on its content?
There are a lot of good intentions in the statement, but was any thought given to private funding streams for the private sector and councils in order to incentivise the move towards electrification?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. The paper that was submitted entailed each Administration setting out the state of play on the electrification of vehicles and infrastructure, and on the actions that each is taking, and plans to take, to accelerate that. The British Government have, through the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV), set aside funding of £20 million for the provision of on-street residential charge points. It is not possible for my Department to draw down that funding, but it is available for councils. That funding will provide 75% of the capital cost of installing the on-street residential parking. To date, none of our councils has successfully applied, but, to incentivise them, I am offering match funding of 25% from my blue-green fund. Therefore, if a council successfully bids for that money, 100% of its capital costs will be covered. My officers are working closely with different councils to encourage them to draw down that funding. Across the water, other councils and local authorities have drawn down that funding. We are hopeful that councils will apply in the near future so that we can draw that funding down and dramatically improve the infrastructure.
I advise the House that, as Members will know, our e-charging infrastructure is owned and operated by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB). I have been working with ESB to upgrade its system. Phase 1 of the upgrade is complete, and phase 2 is being rolled out. Members will be aware that ESB made a successful application to the Levelling Up Fund as well. There are a lot of opportunities that were not there before. We will continue to work with councils, ESB, other energy providers and the motor industry.
Mr Boylan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I welcome the statement. The Southern Government gave £10 million for the climate action fund. Can we expect any more investment for that? Did that come up as part of the discussions? Also, can you give an update on the uptake of the funding by councils?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Members will know that I have made a significant investment in a zero-emission and low-emission fleet for our public transport network. There has been £74 million invested to provide 145 zero- and low-emission vehicles. Members will also know that I have recently announced additional funding of £30 million to ensure that Derry is the first city in these islands to have a zero-emission urban bus fleet by 2023. That is another demonstration of how we are putting our money where our mouth is to advance the climate action agenda.
With respect to the uptake from councils, I have been disappointed that, to date, no councils in the North have made an application to draw down that funding. However, they are working at pace on applications, and my officers are working to support them. I hope that councils make an application. If they draw down the 75% of funding, I will provide match funding of 25% to cover the full capital costs for councils. I appreciate that financing can often be a concern. I hope that, by removing that barrier, we will see a number of councils apply to the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles and draw down that funding.
Ms Hunter: I welcome the Minister’s statement to the House this afternoon and also her announcement at COP26 about the new task force for increasing electric vehicle charging in the North, which is badly needed. I note that the Minister attended a British-Irish Council (BIC) panel at COP26. Minister, can you update us on what further plans you have to work collaboratively across these islands to tackle the climate crisis?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I have said many times in the House that, since taking up the post of Minister for Infrastructure, I have found collaboration across these islands invaluable. It was brought home to me during the COVID crisis when I had very regular engagement with Ministers responsible for transport right across these islands. We shared learning and advised each other where things could perhaps have been done better, and that is the case when it comes to climate action as well.
The transport sector group has been formed quite recently, but I am delighted that we have agreed a work programme across the three pillars. Certainly, if we are to tackle the climate emergency, we need to work collaboratively across these islands. When chairing that particular BIC meeting, I learned that each of us is on the same journey. However, we are all at different points and different scales. I believe that we can only be stronger when we work right across these islands, and I remain committed to doing that.
Dr Aiken: Thank you very much for your remarks so far, Minister. I had the opportunity to meet quite a few representatives from other regions of our nation. Obviously, one of the biggest questions from COP26 is about the electric charging network. The real concern we have is that ESB is not up to scratch. Indeed, ESB is not even capable of providing the bare minimum of a service. Can the Minister outline what she is doing to get ESB to do what it is supposed to do now, never mind increasing the network?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. When I took up post, there was a bit of progress in the sense that the cap on pricing was lifted. The expectation was that that would draw other providers into the market. However, as the Member has rightly identified, ESB is the sole provider and operator of our e-charging infrastructure. Phase 1 of the work to upgrade its existing infrastructure is complete, and it is rolling out phase 2.
ESB also successfully applied to the Levelling Up Fund, and I think that around £3·2 million was secured specifically for e-charging infrastructure. I am awaiting confirmation of what ESB intends to do with that money and whether it will entail charging hubs and the provision of new charging infrastructure, as well as upgrading our existing infrastructure. There is a lot of work going on, and, as I referenced in previous responses, there is also the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles for councils and match funding from my Department.
Cara Hunter referenced the electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure task force. We are awaiting final confirmation of its membership, but I am clear that it needs to have representation from the motor industry, people with lived experience of using e-vehicles, the Department for the Economy, councils and energy providers. That wide spectrum of expertise needs to be brought to the table so that we can have a very clear action plan that will deliver a modern and reliable e-charging infrastructure right across Northern Ireland.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is good to see east-west relations being strengthened as a result of the British-Irish Council. It is also important that North/South meetings are able to occur.
What engagement has the Minister had with the Minister for the Economy, the Utility Regulator and NIE on EV charging? One of the issues that I am seeing is the provision of sufficient electricity supply for those EV chargers. The inability to get sufficient electricity supply is holding back the roll-out of those chargers across Northern Ireland. What engagement has the Minister had to address that?
Ms Mallon: Members will know that the Minister for the Economy has been leading on the energy strategy. My officials have been leading on the transport work theme in that, and the electrification of vehicles is a key component of that work. I have met a number of energy providers, and the need to have them on the EV infrastructure task force is very clear.
Mr Muir, rightly, identifies that there are a number of barriers to people making the switch. One is affordability, but that will resolve itself through the motor industry and having a better second-hand market. Another barrier is range anxiety. That is where the EV infrastructure is key: it has to be in the right place. Underpinning all that, of course, is the need to ensure access to the grid. That work is ongoing, and I expect it to feature heavily in the EV task force work that I announced recently.
Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for her statement and answers so far. I noticed, Minister, that you mentioned the electrification of vehicles, particularly buses. That is obviously very welcome. Will you confirm whether that will be extended to rail travel, particularly for the north-west? Obviously, there is an absence of rail infrastructure across the west in Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. If that is to be developed, it is very important that it is developed in line with sustainability as well as connectivity.
On another point, I noted that you are looking at the half-hourly service for Derry and that the report on that is due this month. Will you clarify the date on which that report will be published?
Mr Buckley: published.
Mr Delargy: Pardon?
Mr Buckley: Well done.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There were a couple of questions there. It is at the Minister’s discretion whether she chooses to answer both of them.
Ms Mallon: No, that is absolutely fine, Mr Deputy Speaker. The work of the all-island strategic rail review is ongoing. It is very clear that there has been historical underinvestment in our rail network, particularly in the north-west. One has only to look at a map to see the lack of rail connectivity that needs to be addressed. That strategic piece of work is ongoing. I have also commenced a number of feasibility studies. The half-hourly service is part of that, as are additional rail halts. I am expecting that report from my officials this month. I am asking for regular updates on it, because I, along with other representatives, met Into the West on a number of occasions, and I want to stick closely to that commitment and ensure that there is no slippage. I confirm that that timeline is still in place.
The decarbonisation of freight and the use of rail for our freight is a component of the all-island strategic rail review, but it is also a new pillar of our focus and work in the British-Irish Council. We are, therefore, trying to come at it on an all-island basis, as well as across the islands.
Mr Robinson: Minister, owing to that meeting, will firms in Northern Ireland, such as Wrightbus in Ballymena, benefit from new orders for more decarbonised transport?
Ms Mallon: Yes. That is correct. I was delighted to make such significant investment in zero-emission buses. The Member will know that local company Wrightbus is building those buses, so, for me, the investment is a win-win on multiple levels. It is a win for the environment, given that they are zero-emission vehicles. It is a win for our local economy, because it is securing employment, and I hope to see growing employment. It is also a win for our passengers, because, as well as being cleaner vehicles, they are much more attractive and comfortable, which is key if we are to get people out of their private cars and on to sustainable public transport.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, it is vital that we electrify our vehicles, but we also need to promote walking and cycling and to build the essential infrastructure that will enable people to safely take up active travel. That is certainly an issue in my constituency, particularly in Newry, where there are many keen cyclists but, unfortunately, the infrastructure is very poor. Have you had any discussions with your Welsh colleagues about active travel legislation, which they already have in place? Do you have any plans to introduce similar legislation in the North to try to put walking and cycling at the heart of our transport strategy?
Ms Mallon: I thank Ms Kimmins for her question and for highlighting the importance of active travel. Members may be aware that, in 2015-16, we invested just over £2 million in active travel in Northern Ireland. This year, I am investing £13·5 million in the provision of active travel and to advance our greenways. There is still so much more to do. I am keen to continue to work with councils and local communities through the blue-green fund to maximise the infrastructure that is there for people to safely walk, wheel and cycle.
There were no detailed discussions with Deputy Minister Waters around active travel legislation in Wales, but I have been mindful of that. It is one of the frustrations that I have, because we should look at putting change on a legislative footing. Of course, the remainder of the mandate is so short that it is not possible to legislate in that time frame. However, I have asked my officials to look at what preparatory work we can do so that the new Infrastructure Minister, whoever they may be, can take the issue forward.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her statement, and I apologise that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of it. The Minister referred to supporting the transition from electric vehicles through financial and fiscal mechanisms. Will the Minister expand on that and tell us more about the types of support that are being considered?
Ms Mallon: There was an initial discussion with the British Government in particular to see what more could be done to incentivise the use of electric vehicles, whether through taxation or rebates. We have asked whether the British Government are actively considering that. Different Administrations are looking at providing support in different ways. We have limited fiscal levers in Northern Ireland. That is why, for me, it was important that I helped to encourage councils to draw down the £20 million from the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles. I have chosen to do that by offering match funding to our councils as well.
My Department will continue to look at how we can support people to make that transition, but there also has to be focus on the fact that many people carry out short journeys by jumping into their car. For me, the other component is making sure that we can provide the facilities for people to walk, wheel or cycle for those shorter journeys and that, where that is not possible, they have the option of cleaner, greener, more sustainable public transport as well, while continuing to make sure that people who are reliant on their private cars can make that switch to electric vehicles.
Mr O’Toole: It is critical that we learn lessons between the islands about active travel and public transport as we move towards decarbonisation. People on this island can, of course, note the state of the rail network on the island of Ireland versus the island of Britain. They are about to cancel High Speed 3 in Britain; we have not had High Speed 1 on this island. Does the Minister agree that, in learning lessons, working together and collaborating as we tackle the challenge of this century, which is ensuring that we have a planet that we can live on, the key thing is to continue to go to meetings, whether it is the North/South Ministerial Council or the British-Irish Council, and that people expect us to go and engage on the issues rather than boycotting and walking away from our responsibilities, as others in the House are wont to do?
Ms Mallon: I tend to find, in my experience, that boycotts do not achieve anything; the clue is in the name. As I have said on a number of occasions in the House, collaborating across these islands is the right and responsible thing to do, but it also improves your performance as a Minister. All of the Ministers across these islands are on the difficult journey of tackling the climate emergency. Difficult decisions have to be taken. When we work together, we can collaborate on the difficult issues and share learning, which is invaluable.
When I was at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 to speak at one of the events, a ministerial colleague from Scotland made the point that, sometimes, if you are from a small place on the global stage, you can feel that you cannot make any contribution. However, when you look at it, you see that small places can make a big contribution. I am pleased to see what we are doing in the North on public transport; in many ways, we lead the way in the transition to zero emissions. I will continue to work across this island with local communities right up to Governments. By doing that, we will work harder, better and smarter in transforming our citizens’ lives.
Mr Beggs: There is an extremely low number of publicly available electric charging points. The Electric Vehicle Association Northern Ireland has expressed concern about their unreliability; indeed, 75% of people say that they are not satisfied. Does the Minister accept that, to have a sustainable model, it is important that maintenance is built and that there are incentives to ensure not only that they are all working but that, when a car is fully charged, the customer will move on and leave the space free for the next driver to make use of the service?
Ms Mallon: I agree. One of the first things that I did when I became Minister was to change the planning rules so that it is much easier to install e-charging infrastructure. Mr Beggs is right to say that maintenance is key as well. I have met representatives from ESB to encourage them to do it. ESB has completed phase 1 of a retrospective upgrade of existing infrastructure. It is due to do phase 2, and it will have the money that it will draw down from the Levelling Up Fund. All of that will see increases in the e-charging infrastructure.
I have provided match funding to the EU FASTER project, which will establish 73 rapid-charging points across the west of Scotland and border counties here on the island. I am providing 25% match funding from my blue-green fund to encourage councils here to draw down funding from the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles. I am also supporting our community transport organisations with a pilot project to see how e-vehicles can suit their needs, given the critical role that they play in communities. The electric vehicle infrastructure task force will bring all of those people together so that we can have the holistic approach that Mr Beggs outlined.
Miss Reilly: I note that the forward work programme includes looking at public sector transport. The Minister will definitely agree that it is vital that we support our public transport network. I believe that Belfast black taxis should benefit from the same concessionary fare scheme as Translink. Minister, you met Belfast Black Taxis and Paul Maskey in July and assured them that you would look favourably on their inclusion in the concessionary fare scheme. You said at that meeting that you would look at putting a bid in at one of the monitoring rounds to make that a reality. Can you give me an update on that? Was a bid made in the monitoring round for Belfast Black Taxis?
Ms Mallon: The October monitoring round was not discussed at the British-Irish Council meeting, which the statement is concerned with, and nor was it on the agenda. On the issue that the Member has raised, I have met Belfast Black Taxis and been working with it. I was hugely disappointed that Translink was not given a single penny of an allocation in the October monitoring round. Of course, I will continue to work with the Finance Minister to ensure that we get the required revenue funding so that we can roll out our existing public transport network and the concessionary fare scheme. I have great ambitions that we could expand that scheme, particularly for people with disabilities, who currently only qualify for half fares.
Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for her statement. Recent consumer reports have referred to a substantial backlog in the provision of home-charging points in the rest of the UK. What is the situation in Northern Ireland in relation to the provision of home-charging points through providers or one provider, as it is in the rest of the UK — British Gas, I understand? In addition, there are homes in Northern Ireland for which the electricity supply is insufficient to deliver home-charging points: what action does she intend to take with regard to that?
Ms Mallon: I recognise that that is an issue, and I hope that we will be able to address it through the energy strategy and the transport work that my officials have been working on. We are working with the Department of Finance on building regulations and the need to have suitable e-charging infrastructure for new developments. We are mindful of that and are working across partners to address it.
Mr McNulty: I welcome the new Member for West Belfast. It is good to see two gold fáinnes in the Chamber at the one time. Excellent.
Minister, will you update me on the FASTER project and the ESB monopoly in providing the EV charge points, and will you tell me how someone who is a provider and innovator in that space and might be useful on the EV task force can get on that task force?
Ms Mallon: My Department has provided match funding of £450,000 for the FASTER project. That funding will install 73 EV rapid-charge points across Ireland and the west of Scotland. That is being taken forward by SEUPB, and we are being told that they should be in place by March 2023.
ESB is the current owner and operator of the EV charging infrastructure in the North, but it is, of course, open to other providers. In meetings that I had with British Ministers, that issue was talked about. The Office for Zero Emission Vehicles said that it would raise the matter with other providers.
If the Member has anyone in mind for membership of the EV infrastructure task force, he can write to my private office and highlight that. In all these things, I am clear that the task force needs to be focused on an action plan. It needs to have membership that covers the key areas that we need to focus on. However, we need to keep membership at a level that does not render it unwieldy and unable to function efficiently and effectively. I am happy to give consideration if the Member has someone in mind.
Mr Lyttle: Can I ask the Education Minister what work she is doing to raise —?
Mr Allister: Infrastructure.
Mr Lyttle: Sorry, Infrastructure. Apologies. [Laughter.]
What work is the Minister for Infrastructure doing to raise public awareness of the benefits of electrical vehicle use and to incentivise their private purchase in Northern Ireland?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Well retrieved.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his promotion. [Laughter.]
The issue is very much in the public domain. While my Department is not involved in any public awareness campaign at present, the people who care passionately about the issue — I think primarily of users of electric vehicles — are good at having an online social presence. As we embark on the journey to tackle the climate emergency, this issue will come more and more to the fore.
What I am pleased about now is that we see decisive action to improve the e-charging infrastructure. There is a host of actions being taken by the motor industry as well. The issue is very much to the fore in the public mind, but we need to make sure that making that switch is accessible and affordable. I will continue to work with the motor industry and, through the EV infrastructure task force, to address the issues, so that we can roll out a modern and reliable public e-charging infrastructure so that people who want to make that switch can and are not afraid to do so. Seeing is believing, and I believe that, once people see a more fit-for-purpose e-charging infrastructure and more electric vehicles on the road, that will give them the courage to make the switch as well.
Mr Allister: Will the Minister clarify whether she is still pursuing the anti-growth proposal of congestion charges in Belfast, a proposal that has been rightly and roundly condemned by Retail NI?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That may not be a British-Irish Council matter, but I am sure that the Minister will want to answer.
Ms Mallon: I am content to answer the question, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was asked a very specific question, and, as a responsible Minister, you should give consideration to things rather than dismiss them out of hand. I had time to delve into the matter further with one of our media outlets, but I am not sure whether it was broadcast. I am also of the view that households are facing huge costs right now, including spiralling energy costs and the increased costs of everyday living, and, to be responsible, we need to make sure that the people who have the broadest shoulders are carrying the broadest burden. That is why I am very supportive of the private Member’s Bill that my party leader, Colum Eastwood, is bringing through Westminster. That Bill involves a green levy and is about making sure that the big polluters pay and that the big companies that have the financial resource are making financial contributions to provide government with the investment that it requires to transition our economy and our society.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members, that concludes questions on the statement. Take your ease before we move to the next item of business, please.