Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Committee for Infrastructure, meeting on Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Jonathan Buckley (Chairperson)
Mr David Hilditch (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Cathal Boylan
Mr Keith Buchanan
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Ms Liz Kimmins
Mr Andrew Muir
Witnesses:Dr Dan Hull, Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service
Mr Daryl Hughes, Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service
Decarbonisation of Road Transport in Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service
The Chairperson (Mr Buckley): I welcome Dan Hull from the Assembly Research and Information Service (RaISe), who is attending in person, and, via StarLeaf, Daryl Hughes, who is also from RaISe.
Dr Dan Hull (Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service): Thank you, Chair, and good morning, members. Daryl and I are here to present a summary of the electric and ultra-low emission vehicles survey results. Members will be aware that, as part of the Committee's inquiry into decarbonising Northern Ireland's road transport system, the Assembly Research and Information Service was asked to prepare a survey in order to ascertain public attitudes towards ultra-low emission vehicles. Members can find the research paper containing those results on page 212 of their packs.
Ideally, our transport specialist, Des McKibbin, would have been here to provide this summary, as he was responsible for designing the survey. However, Des is currently unwell, so we are lucky to have Daryl Hughes, who is with us as a placement student from Newcastle University as part of a UK research and innovation PhD policy internship scheme. Daryl has taken over where Des left off, and he will report the results to you in a moment, but I will make a couple of introductory points.
The survey received 742 responses. It is important to note that the respondents self-selected and are, therefore, not representative of the entire Northern Ireland population, so the survey results should be interpreted and used with care. For example, 76% of respondents were male and just 24% were female, of those who provided information on that question. Some 33% of respondents own or have previously owned an electric vehicle, which is far higher than the 0·4% of Northern Ireland's registered vehicles that are ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs).
There are five sections to the survey. In section 1, we asked about awareness of and attitudes towards policy. In section 2, we asked about attitudes towards electric vehicles (EVs) and ultra-low emission vehicles. In section 3, we asked about the experiences of EV owners and the expectations of non-owners. We then asked about attitudes to transport demand management policies and methods, and, lastly, we asked about travel behaviour, including COVID-19 changes.
I will hand over to Daryl, who will take you through the results of the survey in a bit more detail.
Mr Daryl Hughes (Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service): Thank you, Chairperson, and good morning, members.
As you will be aware, UK government policy is currently set to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, which is to be followed by a ban on hybrid vehicles by 2035. Currently, around half of one per cent of Northern Ireland's vehicles fleet are ultra-low emission vehicles. Around half of those are battery-electric vehicles — EVs — and around half are plug-in hybrid vehicles, which I will refer to simply as "hybrids" for this presentation. This morning, I will present the key findings from the public survey into EVs and hybrids. I will also raise a few key questions that the Committee may wish to consider in its scrutiny of electric car policy.
As Dan said, the survey covered five broad areas, and I will present each section in turn. Section 1 was about the awareness of and attitudes towards the Government's policy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the respondents volunteered to take part in the survey, most respondents had heard of the policy. However, only around half of them were satisfied that they had sufficient information to understand the policy. Overall, 77% of respondents supported the policy and 18% opposed it. However, despite the fact that the policy received broad support, many respondents felt that it was overambitious and even unachievable. Some felt that a more holistic transport policy was needed, for example, to include active travel options. Furthermore, many were concerned that we need to make sure that poor people are not left behind by the transition.
Section 2 was about attitudes to EVs and hybrids. We started off by asking respondents about the benefits and disadvantages of EVs, as they see them. The most widely perceived benefits of EVs — perhaps, unsurprisingly — related to the environment. For example, 82% agreed that a key benefit was zero exhaust emissions. A further 60% agreed that EVs were environmentally friendly, and a similar number believed that EVs had low operating costs. On the other hand, the most widely perceived disadvantages of EVs related to range and charging infrastructure. For example, 92% of respondents agreed that the lack of charging stations was a key disadvantage. Sixty per cent agreed that range anxiety was an important factor, and around half felt that long recharge times were another issue. On a slightly separate topic, three quarters of respondents were concerned about the high purchase price of EVs. We will see those themes in the rest of the survey as well.
Next, we asked respondents whether their next car would be an EV, and, if so, when they intended to buy one. We then split the results between the EV owners and EV non-owners. Of the EV owners, 85% intended their next car to be another EV. Those people were generally quite affluent, environmentally conscious drivers who had facilities and space to charge an EV at home, which, crucially, means that they do not have to rely on the public charging infrastructure. The other 15% of EV owners did not intend their next car to be an EV. That was overwhelmingly due to their poor experience of the public charging infrastructure in its current state.
Of the EV non-owners, only around one quarter intended their next car to be an EV. Interestingly, many of them would like to buy an EV in principle, but they expressed a lot of concern about the lack of charging facilities and, again, the high purchase price. Three quarters of EV non-owners did not intend to buy an EV or were undecided. Common concerns were the high price of new EVs and the poor reputation of the public charging infrastructure.
It should be said that some respondents were also concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the transition to EVs. That raises a question. It looks as though privately owned EVs are currently most suitable for affluent people with space for home charging. What are the affordable, sustainable travel options for other people?
Section 3 was about the experiences of EV owners and the expectations of non-owners. Having asked the EV owners to report on their experiences of EV ownership and use, we found that over 90% were dissatisfied with the availability and maintenance of public charging stations. Our respondents were generous in giving detailed feedback and suggestions on ways in which to improve that, particularly with regard to the location, capacity, governance and design of the charging infrastructure. I do not have time to go into that, but I refer members to pages 236 to 238 of the members' pack, where there are more details.
We also asked EV non-owners to respond or report on their expectations of owning and using an EV. It is important to say that EV ranges and charge rates have improved a lot in recent years as technology has got better. The average new EV has something like a 200-mile range. However, most EV non-owner respondents would expect to be able to travel over 200 miles per charge — in some cases, over 300 miles per charge — as well as being able to charge rapidly; ie under half an hour. Currently, those kinds of ranges and charge times are available, but they tend to be in the more expensive vehicles on the market, so, again, it raises an affordability question.
Drawing section 3 to a close, the main thing to consider coming out of that is whether a strategy is needed to improve the location, number and capacity of charging stations.
Section 4 was about the attitudes to transport demand management policies. We sought views on nine different policies that are designed to manage demand for travel in favour of sustainable modes. It is worth distinguishing between the "pull" policies, which are designed to encourage sustainable travel, and the "push" policies, which are designed to discourage fossil fuel-based travel. We found that the pull policies were really popular among respondents. Around 90% supported investments in the public charging infrastructure, which, again, chimes well with the rest of the survey, and 90% supported subsidies for EVs: things like VAT cuts or grants for the purchase of new and second-hand vehicles. Public-sector investment was also a popular policy. Eighty-three per cent supported a requirement that new vehicles purchased by the Government, local councils etc are EVs or hybrid vehicles.
That brings us on to the push policies. Those were generally less popular. I will give just two examples. Sixty per cent of respondents supported the introduction of low-emission zones in town centres, while 36% opposed that. The least popular policy option was a mandatory workplace parking levy, whereby fossil fuel car drivers would have to pay to park. That was supported by only 36% of respondents and opposed by 57%. The question that it raises is this: what is the appropriate balance of push and pull policies to encourage sustainable transport?
The fifth and final section was about travel behaviour. We asked respondents about the way in which they currently travel and their willingness to change travel modes in the future. We also covered something of the impacts of COVID-19 on their travel. I do not think that anyone will be surprised to hear that cars currently dominate travel in Northern Ireland. That is especially true for longer journeys. However, we found that journeys that are under two miles are often undertaken by active travel options, such as walking and cycling. Around half of respondents would consider changing their mode of travel for those short journeys of under two miles. However, less than one third would consider changing them for journeys of over five miles. That is really important, because two thirds of respondents travel over five miles to a place of work or education.
We all know that COVID-19 has reduced overall travel demand. It has also caused a general shift away from cars and public transport to active travel. Some respondents indicated that they had switched from public transport to car journeys in some instances. Just over half of the respondents expect to work from home at least some of the time after the anticipated removal of COVID-19 restrictions. That raises another question: what policies could encourage the continuation of the positive changes that we have seen in travel behaviour due to COVID-19?
Those were the survey results. The survey provides useful insights into the views of EV owners and non-owners. We have to be careful, however, not to extrapolate them to the whole population. Among respondents, there was widespread support for the government policy to ban sales of fossil fuel vehicles. However, there were many concerns and scepticism about how that would be achieved in practice. Many of the drivers would like to switch to an EV in principle. However, the key barriers to switching are things like charging infrastructure, range and purchase price. The people who currently own EVs were highly dissatisfied with the public charging infrastructure, and the poor reputation of the charging infrastructure has spilled out into general knowledge, so that EV non-owners are also concerned about that if they were to switch. Pull policies received high support, while push policies tended to attract more opposition. Finally, there was some willingness to switch away from cars for short journeys, but respondents were far less likely to consider switching for longer journeys. Thank you very much.
Dr Hull: Thank you, Chair. Daryl and I are happy to take questions from the Committee regarding the survey results. However, neither of us is a transport specialist, so we may have to defer to our colleague Des McKibbin for any more detailed answers, but we will do our best.
I know that you cannot get into the policy-specific aspects of the Committee's inquiry, given that you are not experts in that field. Nevertheless, are you able to say something about how representative the survey is, given the high number of EV owners compared with the population? Do you see the survey as being useful?
Dr Hull: I will start off, and Daryl will follow up if he has anything to add. The survey was useful in the sense that 742 responses gave us a really good and wide range of information, particularly in terms of the qualitative information — the comments that we have drawn together on a series of different themes in the paper. That gave us a really good impression and a wide-ranging set of information. However, 742 responses is less than 0·04% of the population, and, as we said at the beginning, 33% of them were EV owners, compared with the 0·4% of Northern Ireland's registered vehicles that are ULEVs. We do have to be careful about inferring too much on a population-wide basis.
Mr Hughes: Yes, I would add to that with the caveat, as Dan has just mentioned, about it certainly not being representative. The survey was useful, particularly around the experiences of EV owners. They might not be representative of the population, but they gave really valuable feedback, which, I think, could be learnt from.
The Chairperson (Mr Buckley): In analysing the data, did anything come to mind as quick wins for developing that area of policy towards the 2030 deadline for ending the sale of petrol cars?
Dr Hull: It is, obviously, difficult for us to make any policy recommendations; that is not our role. I suppose that the most stark conclusions that we would draw to the Committee's attention are the large levels of dissatisfaction with public charging infrastructure among EV owners, who rely on it. I think that it was 90%, was it not, Daryl, who expressed dissatisfaction with the charging infrastructure?
Mr Hughes: Yes. That strong dissatisfaction came out in the comments as well. The information service cannot talk about policy recommendations, but I refer members to pages 236 to 238 in your pack, where we have drawn together the recommendations from the survey respondents.
Mr Hilditch: We have spoken about ULEVs and EVs. Was there any talk of self-charging hybrids in the survey?
Mr Hughes: Those vehicles were mentioned, although the survey was not designed to elicit responses about them. We focused on plug-in hybrids and EVs. The only time that they came up was when respondents mentioned them. Some people said that they had self-charging hybrids, and other respondents who were EV drivers talked about them. I could take more questions about that specifically but only a small proportion of responses even mentioned them.
Mr Hilditch: OK, thank you. You said that the male/female split among the survey respondents was significant. When did you first notice that split?
Dr Hull: We discussed the results with Des as they were coming in and that was fairly clear from the beginning of the survey once it opened. It became very clear when the survey closed and all the results were in.
Dr Hull: In terms of targeting female drivers, for example?
Dr Hull: The Committee Clerk or the Committee team may be able to advise on how the survey was communicated to the public. It was made generally available. I am not sure whether we did, perhaps, make efforts along the way to target missing sectors of the population.
Mr Hilditch: Today is the first time that I, as a Committee member, was aware of it, to be honest. It is news to me this morning. There is quite a differential in the figures.
The Assistant Committee Clerk: We went out to community organisations to try to promote it in areas that were under-represented, but that is the best that we got.
Dr Hull: The survey was not like a poll, where you would try to get a weighted survey. It was, essentially, self-identifying respondents.
Mr Hilditch: I understand that. They are all respondents, at the end of the day. What evidence supports the claim that most respondents who live in terraced-type housing and flats, which accounts for around one third of Northern Ireland's housing stock, live in dwellings where they would be unable to install home chargers? Was that a major concern in the survey?
Mr Hughes: I will come in on that. Thank you for the question. Yes, that was raised by many respondents directly. For example, many of the EV non-owner respondents said things like, "Well, I would really like an electric vehicle, but I live in a small terraced house without a dedicated parking space" or, "I live in a flat, and I cannot even park on my street sometimes, so how could I have my own home charger?". That came directly from respondents.
Mr Boylan: I thank Dan and Daryl for the presentation, and I extend my best wishes to Des. I hope that he recovers soon. He has been reporting to the Committee for many years.
Thank you very much for the report. Obviously, there is some good information in it. While it may not reflect views across the board, it is something that the Committee can use.
Daryl, the report talks about range anxiety. Mr Hilditch mentioned the male:female ratio. The most important thing for anybody when driving a vehicle is that they are confident that they have range and have confidence in the system. Clearly, the charging network, especially in the North, is not up to standard or speed. We have asked different questions of the Department about trying to bring that about through the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and everything else. Given the fact that we seem to have a slightly poorer quality of network, going by the evidence that we have, how does that relate to range anxiety, and how do other jurisdictions deal with it? We need to instil confidence if we are to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. Can you reflect on what is in the report with regard to range and some of that?
Mr Hughes: As you point out, range anxiety is a key factor. It came up time and again in the survey. We did not do any work to look at that in different jurisdictions. The information was purely on Northern Ireland drivers. The most that we can say from the data is that some respondents indicated that they have driven in other jurisdictions — in the Republic or GB — and had more positive experiences there, so they viewed Northern Ireland's infrastructure unfavourably in comparison. That was the only place where that comparison came up in the data.
Mr Boylan: You have outlined the targets for 2030 and 2035. If we are serious about it, besides all the costs — EVs are expensive — we need to install a proper system to encourage people to do that. The technology is getting better. However, obviously, it is down to the price of the vehicles and everything else. The provision of fast charging is probably the way to go. You mentioned responses to the survey on the lack of charging stations, range anxiety, long recharge times and cost: those are four major factors that would not instil confidence in people. We have a way to go. However, we have made a good start, and there is good stuff in the report. Is a fast-charging infrastructure the way to go? Is that what is coming out of the report, and is that how we will address some of the problems that we face? A lot of us are keen to move forward with this. Besides all the policy issues, we are keen to drive this forward.
Mr Hughes: Yes, very much so. It is about the capacity of the chargers and how quickly you can charge a vehicle. As I understand it, there are three rates of charger. There are slow chargers, which take many hours. There are fast chargers, which might take a couple of hours. There are also rapid chargers, which charge most of your battery in half an hour. That is another thing that respondents talked about. A lot of the EV owners said, "I can just about charge my vehicle when I can find a working public charger, but they are quite slow, so I might have to spend hours waiting around for my vehicle to charge, and queues can build up". That indicates that, yes, rapid chargers are definitely a good option. The EV non-owners, to some extent, recognised that. I do not think that they were quite as aware of the technical detail, but they basically said, "Yes, I would expect to be able to charge my vehicle in under half an hour".
Mr Boylan: Thank you. I have a final point. It will not be a one-size-fits-all situation. It will involve public points. We see the challenge that home charging will face in some areas, so we will need a mixture with public charge points. That will encourage people.
Thank you very much for your report, and, as I said, pass on my regards to Des. Thank you, Dan and Daryl, for coming along.
Ms Anderson: I, too, send my best regards to Des. Thank you for the presentation and for the information that we received. It is not surprising to any of us to hear that the lack of affordability of electric cars has been a big issue in the survey. Did any of the responses to the survey reference the impact of the British Government decreasing the grant funding for electric cars? My understanding is that, this year, it has been reduced from £3,000 to £2,500, and, although those vehicles would still be quite expensive, the grant allows for some level of support. Surely, if the plan is to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars and to encourage people to buy EVs, such grant support would be necessary. You would want that grant to increase, not fall.
Mr Hughes: Yes. In the survey, did people reference the loss of the grant? Yes. That came up with some respondents. Forgive my memory — there were hundreds of comments, and I am trying to summarise them. A small proportion of the non-owners who would like to own an EV referenced that and expressed disappointment that that grant would not be available, because, as you said, that helps towards the purchase price. Beyond that, we did not ask a specific question about that policy or that change.
Ms Anderson: OK. When I was listening to you outline the stages of the responses, I thought that cost would feature, and I am sure that, as times goes on, it will. I also note that the survey indicates that most of the respondents were from the eastern counties, but I would like to stress, so that you are aware, that the west is in just as much need of a decent charge point network; in fact, we have been looking at the charging points in Derry, and they are an absolute disgrace. I wrote to the Minister and the Electricity Supply Board about replacing the broken charging points. It seems to me to be a massive contradiction. On the one hand, we are talking about banning petrol and diesel cars, and that is needed.
We are also looking at the cost. The charge point network infrastructure across the North is certainly not fit for purpose. While the encouragement that we are giving people sounds good, I can tell you that there are very few people in the Bogside in Derry and around Derry who have space for home charging. If we are serious about taking this forward, we need to look at the network and find a mechanism through which the charge point networks are maintained and upgraded.
Mr Beggs: Thank you for your update. I think that 742 responses is quite good. What is your impression? I would have thought that, if the Department got that number of responses, it would be pleased. What is your professional view?
Dr Hull: It is a good number of responses in the sense that, as I said, it gave us a really good range, particularly in the comments. It is roughly 0·04% of the population, so it is smaller than, for example, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) continuous household survey that has 1,100 to 1,200 respondents. It would be helpful to have had more respondents, but the responses provide a good, solid body of data for us in looking at public attitudes to electric charging.
Mr Beggs: I agree with you that the qualitative information from comments has been useful. It reinforced my impressions from previous reports of chargers of the wrong type, old chargers, faulty chargers, chargers locked at night, chargers in the wrong place and, unlike where there has been development, very few chargers available in filling stations.
Mapping locations — being aware of where chargers are — is a key issue. Who has responsibility for that?
Dr Hull: I do not know. We will have to come back to you on mapping. Services such as Zap-Map provide you with a map of services and indicate which chargers are in use at any one time. We will have to look into how reliable the data is on that service or any other. Chair, we will be happy to come back with further information.
Mr Beggs: In the feedback that you received, did you pick up from respondents any tips from elsewhere? Why, exactly, are we so far behind other parts? I saw one comment that a free-to-use network is doomed to failure. If there is no incentive for operators to spend money and recoup that expenditure, they will not repair it. That is, essentially, what has happened. Did you pick up any other comments or lessons from respondents about success in other parts of the United Kingdom?
Dr Hull: That deeper context of the comparison with other jurisdictions would have been really advantageous for us to get to. Again, Chair, we are happy to come back with further research on making those comparisons with public attitudes in other jurisdictions. Daryl, do you recall any comments about the experience of users from other places?
Mr Hughes: There was very little. I think that I previously referred to comments on experience of driving in the Republic and in GB that were generally more positive, but there was little information about it, and we did not specifically ask about that.
Mr Beggs: You indicated that some saw the cost of an electric vehicle as a barrier. Was there recognition of the considerably lower running cost? Ultimately, monthly costs could still be a positive incentive, even at the moment.
Dr Hull: That was referred to, was it not, Daryl?
Mr Hughes: It certainly was. We asked respondents about the advantages and disadvantages of owning an EV. Around 58% of respondents said that low operating costs are great. Once you have managed to fork out the money for an EV, assuming you can run it well, they are quite cheap to run. That could be higher, perhaps. About 40% of people did not recognise that as a factor. That may be something to look into.
Mr Beggs: That has been useful. We need to follow up on that with the Minister and the Department.
Ms Kimmins: Chair, I am sorry that I was late this morning. Something else came up. I welcome you to your first meeting.
Daryl and Dan, thank you both. It has been a very informative presentation. I, too, send best wishes to Des. I know that he has done an awful lot of work on this.
I have a couple of questions that probably lead on from some of the other points. My colleague Martina mentioned people living in housing such as terraced houses or flats where they would not be able to install home chargers. Were there any responses from people who live in those types of settings about their inability to have home charging? Did they suggest having a greater focus on public charging stations around those areas?
Dr Hull: I do not know. Daryl, did that come up in the survey? Did it include people living in terraced housing, for example, who were looking at the public charging infrastructure and having to rely on public charging infrastructure around them? Do we have any comments on that?
Mr Hughes: Yes, there were a few comments. There are some EV owners who live in, say, terraced houses or flats. There were very few. I do not have a figure off the top of my head. A handful of people managed to afford an EV and found a place to charge it up at home. The only thing that I recall is that they found it very difficult. I was not sure whether they had managed to get a dedicated space for a home charger or were relying on public charging infrastructure. I remember, however, that people were finding it quite difficult.
Ms Kimmins: Yes. Thank you. As others have said, a lot of the complaints are about the current charge points not being in the right place. Was there much or any feedback on why they were considered to be poorly placed and how they might be more strategically installed?
Dr Hull: Again, we did not have specific questions on that, but it came out in the comments when we opened the floor to respondents. A lot of them referred to the fact that chargers are not on key motorways. Key routes do not have enough chargers. A strategy is probably needed to put them in the optimal places.
Ms Kimmins: Yes. As a Committee, we will suggest that the Department also look at encouraging councils to draw down some of the funding that is available for the charging scheme. I come from the Newry area, and I know that there are limited numbers of chargers and, as in other areas, sometimes they do not work and so on. If we can encourage councils to draw down that money, it will certainly help with some of the issues that have come out.
My last point relates to the survey's finding that 23% of current non-EV owners intend to buy an EV as their next vehicle. Do we have any comparative figures from other areas on the demand for EV cars as people's next purchase? If not, could we look at that and get some data on it as well?
Dr Hull: Chair, we would be happy to look at other jurisdictions and come back with that information, if that would be helpful.
Ms Kimmins: That would be brilliant. Thanks very much, both of you. That was very helpful.
Mr K Buchanan: Thank you, Dan and Daryl. I appreciate your efforts. Please pass on my regards to Des, but I am sure that the Committee's regards will cover everybody.
The whole theme is this: chargers, chargers, chargers. I support Roy's point about perhaps producing a simple map to indicate where all the chargers are in Northern Ireland. I do not know how you keep up to date with what is or is not working. It was mentioned at our last meeting that 25% — I am working from memory — of chargers were not working. I am guessing that figure, but a fairly high percentage of chargers were not working. It would be good to get a map across Northern Ireland in order to see where chargers are and what types — fast, slow or whatever — of chargers they are. Roy touched on that. He must have read my notes. I appreciate that you cannot influence, but what are your thoughts on the free-to-use network of chargers?
Dr Hull: It is difficult for us to comment on the policy around that and the advantages of it.
Dr Hull: It might be more helpful to look at the way in which other jurisdictions have handled that and to see where those who have transitioned from a free-to-use network into various kinds of paid schemes are and how successful it has been. There may well be commentaries that might be helpful to the Committee that we would be happy to have a look at.
[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality.]
Mr Hughes: Some respondents volunteered comments regarding a free-to-use charging network. There was a mix of opinions. This is not my opinion. Some people thought that it was brilliant, and there was a feeling of, "Hey. Free charging. Fantastic". On the other hand, a lot of respondents said that they would rather pay and felt that it would be better to have a network that was paid for and properly maintained. That is a question for the Department to look at. I do not think that respondents
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"Department for Infrastructure need to get their act into gear if we have any hope of being ready for the fossil fuel vehicle ban."
The Chairperson (Mr Buckley): That is a fair point. There are no more questions. There is some engagement on which we need to hear back, and, no doubt, we will. I thank Dan and Daryl for attending the Committee meeting. We look forward to hearing from you in the days and weeks ahead.