7 March 2023
Decarbonising Rural Transport

Jesse Norman, Minister of State for Decarbonisation and Technology, responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on decarbonising rural transport.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

What a delight it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this debate on decarbonising rural transport. I am very aware of this issue as a constituency MP; in Hereford and South Herefordshire, we have many of the issues that have been described. I do not mean to disappoint my hon. Friend at the outset, but I am not going to make Treasury policy here and, least of all, as a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a few weeks before a Budget. Nevertheless, a wide range of issues have been raised and it is important to engage with them all.

As my hon. Friend rightly noted, buses are at the centre of the public transport network, but even more so in rural areas than in many urban areas. I and colleagues recognise their important role in providing sustainable transport options and independence to people who live in the countryside. They also have an essential role to play in achieving net zero by 2050 and in creating the cleaner and healthier places to live that we all aspire to have.

On decarbonisation, I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in celebrating Devon’s recent success in joining the Government-funded ADEPT Live Labs 2 programme for decarbonising local roads in the UK. I am delighted that Devon will carry out a carbon-negative project on the A382, including the Jetty Marsh link road. That is part of a suite of corridor and place-based interventions, trialling, testing and showcasing applications in connection with the Wessex partnership, an exciting project that will be provided with more than £12 million for the three-year programme.

As colleagues will know, the national bus strategy was published in March 2021, with the long-term aim of making buses more frequent and reliable, easier to understand and use, and better co-ordinated and cheaper. The strategy asked all local transport authorities to develop a bus service improvement plan, setting out how they would improve services. It also stated that local transport plans must be clear on

“how interventions across local transport modes will drive decarbonisation in their area.”

I am delighted that Devon received £14.1 million in BSIP funding, £1.87 million of which is being targeted at bus priority measures that will benefit routes into Barnstaple and to North Devon District Hospital. I was also delighted to hear about GWR’s work in my hon. Friend’s constituency, where a bus-branch line has been introduced between Barnstaple and Lynton and Lynmouth, co-ordinating bus and rail timetables to offer a more integrated travel experience for passengers. I hope that there will be more to come in the following year.

The bus strategy makes it clear that the needs of rural transport users should be given equal consideration to those of users in urban areas. However, I recognise that it can be challenging to provide conventional bus services for rural areas, which have widely dispersed populations and consequent travel patterns that are hard to cover effectively. That is why demand-responsive services, which have been discussed today, can be used in some places to meet their needs, and work is under way to assess whether that can be more effective than traditional public transport solutions.

Colleagues will be aware of the £20 million rural mobility fund, which supports 17 innovative demand-led minibus trials in rural areas. They use app-based technologies so that passengers can book a journey through their smartphone, and intelligent software then works out the right route to pick up and drop off passengers, given the demand. The Department has made sure that the services use accessible minibuses and can still be booked through a website or with a phone call so that no one is excluded from using them.

As the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) pointed out, demand-responsive services are not the perfect solution to every challenge. Other schemes need to be trialled, and have been, but have proven not to be sustainable. A balance needs to be struck between providing a useful service that is responsive and frequent and running too much mileage cost-ineffectively, with too few passengers. That is why it is so important that each scheme should participate in a detailed monitoring and evaluation process, so that the Department can learn about the most effective approaches.

Some of the pilots use zero-emission vehicles. The scheme in Essex has been electrified since day one, providing a zero-emission demand-responsive service to rural areas around Braintree, and Surrey County Council has started to roll out its electric minibus route on its Mole Valley connect service.

On buses more broadly, colleagues will know that, in 2020, we committed to introducing 4,000 zero-emission buses and, ultimately, to achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. It is nice to hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly supporting the superb achievements of Wrightbus in Northern Ireland with regard to not just electrification, but its work on the Hydroliner, using hydrogen technology.

The approach to zero-emission buses will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support green jobs across the country. Since 2020, the Government have funded an estimated 3,452 zero-emission buses across the UK, some 1,400 of which have been supported by funding from the zero-emission bus regional areas, which has rightly been highlighted. Great progress has been made, with more than 500 buses ordered so far under the ZEBRA scheme, including 117 electric buses that have been ordered for four different local authorities, as announced in the House last week.

Buses are not the only zero-emission vehicles on our roads. It is right to think about the question of zero-emission vehicles more widely, as well as the charging infrastructure network, mentioned by several colleagues, that needs to be as accessible, affordable and secure in rural areas as elsewhere. Last March, the Government published their electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, which set out plans to accelerate the roll-out of the network. We expect at least 300,000 public charge points to be installed across the UK by 2030. There are already over 37,000 open-access public chargers on UK roads, with more than 600 new chargers added to our road network each month on average, and public charging devices have more than tripled in the past four years. That is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of charge points in homes and workplaces. We believe that we are on track to meet local expectations.

Gavin Newlands 

I like the Minister’s comments on the ZEBRA scheme, even though it has been an utter shambles from start to finish. Scotland has more zero-emission buses on the road in a country that is a tenth of the size.

On chargers, the Government launched Project Rapid, and the Labour Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood), mentioned the number of chargers in the UK. Scotland already has 73% more rapid chargers per head than the rest of the UK. In the last quarter of last year, the number increased by nearly 15%, more than double the rate at which England increased its rapid chargers—the east and west midlands rate was 4.3%, Yorkshire was 5% and the south-east was 3.3%. Project Rapid needs to change its name, does it not?

Jesse Norman 

There is no doubt that the question of how we get lots of rapid chargers into motorway service areas and other parts of the trunk network is complex, because it requires long-term solutions based on translating large amounts of electricity through distribution network operators and the national grid into those areas. I was slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman bragging about the Scottish Government’s achievements. He may want to look at the Daily Business published in August last year, which said that Scotland was “bottom” of the EV charging league for growth and described that as

“an embarrassing blow to the country that hosted the COP26”.

The hon. Gentleman should look not just at the number that have been installed, which perhaps is not surprising given the level of income per head that Scotland receives under the Barnett formula. If my county of Herefordshire was miraculously and sadly disentangled from its current place and floated north to abut on to Scotland, the rate of funding per head would go up by over £2,000, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the funding settlement is different and that has different effects. The Scottish record is not one to be proud of as regards the growth of charge points, and he may want to look again at the numbers he described.

We have also been looking at public and industry funding to support local authorities with the roll-out of charge points. Just last month, we announced a further £56 million of public industry funding. In Devon, there are currently 442 public charge points, of which over 100 are rapid and above, which is pretty much in line with the UK average per person and possibly even slightly higher in relation to rapid charging. That is a good start, but there is plenty still to do.

Helen Morgan 

I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) about grid capacity. Rural areas are being asked to look at replacing a lot of oil-fired boilers with electric alternatives, and obviously, we need to address electric charging points, but grid capacity is a fundamental restraining problem in rural areas. What are the Minister’s thoughts on how improvements to that infrastructure can be speeded up?

Jesse Norman 

It is important to put this into perspective. One advantage of rural areas is that, in many cases, more so than in urban areas, people have driveways or accessible areas where they can put in charging points. Of course, domestic charging points are growing rapidly—vastly faster, as one might expect through private investment, than in the last year or two. It is a rapidly escalating curve, and rural areas have a great advantage over urban areas when it comes to charging electric vehicles. Rural areas will also benefit as improvements in technology increase vehicle range and reduce costs and range anxiety. It is a picture that we have reason to be optimistic about without in any sense being complacent about the need to continue to make rapid progress.

Jonathan Edwards 

I want to reiterate my initial intervention on the Labour Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood), and the point made by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. The concern is that the grid as it is will not accommodate everybody charging their cars at home; it will not cope. It would require significant extra infrastructure to transmit the electricity into rural areas. If we did that, we would put pylons everywhere and that becomes controversial. One solution in the United States is to use transport corridors—roads and rail—and go underground along those routes, which can be far more cost-effective. Of course, going underground is far more expensive than overground pylons.

There needs to be strategic thinking. These issues are devolved in Wales. Planning matters are devolved, as they are in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but there needs to be co-ordination and some thinking about how we can create the resilience and capacity for rural areas without desecrating them.

Jesse Norman 

I completely agree with the hon. Member that any solution needs to respect the beauty and integrity of the area concerned. That is absolutely right, and I thank him for his suggestion, which I believe has received some consideration, but I will check with my officials.

There is a wider point. Of course, the demands on the grid are changing over time, but we have been given no reason to think that they are unsustainable. The attraction of much modern technology is that it allows much more load balancing in the timing of when cars are charged. We expect that to be a valuable source of strength and stability in the grid as we go forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon is a passionate advocate for active travel. She knows that the Department published the second cycling and walking investment strategy in the summer of last year, which includes new and updated objectives, such as increased levels of walking, including walking to school and doubling the levels of cycling. We expect to invest over £850 million in active travel between 2020 and 2023, which is a record amount of funding. As she knows, last month we announced an active travel fund of £200 million to improve walking and cycling routes and to boost local usage and economic development.

The benefits are not just economic, as has been rightly highlighted. There are also the benefits of air quality and improved health, and they play a vital role in decarbonisation. Funding is important, and we have talked about that, but it is only one part of the solution in rural areas. We also need to support increased capability in delivery, and that is why the Government are providing Devon County Council with capability funding to support the development of its county-wide rural trail—its cycling and walking infrastructure plan.

I was delighted to open the offices of Active Travel England in York a few weeks ago with Chris Boardman, our national active travel commissioner, and Danny Williams, the chief executive. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will know from her APPG, those are people of the highest quality and the ATE is a very important development—indeed, a milestone—in how we think about the adequate and highly effective provision of active travel infrastructure and standards.

There is a mixed picture in terms of need, but not a mixed picture in terms of the commitment, energy and drive that we are trying to bring to the entire portfolio across the range of the different interventions and modes in the cause of decarbonising our country and our economy.