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Zero-emission Buses and Air Quality in Sheffield

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered zero emission buses and air quality in Sheffield.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will start with the issue of air quality. We know its importance. Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 43,000 people every year in the UK, according to Asthma + Lung UK. Children are in the frontline, as it affects their health in childhood and throughout their life.

Living alongside a busy road carries the same risk as passively smoking 10 cigarettes a day, so the fact that nitrogen dioxide levels in Sheffield were above legal limits was a huge concern. Clearly we are not alone—we are one of 30 towns and cities exceeding the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre—but we were keen to act, and the Government were keen to support us, as a city, in acting.

The Government directed us to implement a clean air zone. We welcomed that instruction because we want a cleaner and healthier future for all who live in our city. Based on the national figures I mentioned, we know that air pollution contributes to around 250 to 500 deaths every year in Sheffield. It can permanently damage children’s lungs and cause strokes, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. The motion refers to zero emission buses: such buses, manufactured in Northern Ireland by Wrightbus, were launched in Oxford only two weeks ago. The fleet of 21 StreetDeck Electroliners, the world’s first efficient, double-decker electric buses, was launched as part of the contribution to net zero. Does the hon. Member agree that there is scope for Northern Ireland to pave the way across the United Kingdom in terms of electric bus contracts? For Sheffield, they are the answer to all his prayers.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I thought that on this occasion I had secured a Westminster Hall debate on which he could not find an angle, but I was obviously mistaken. He is right, and I hope that Sheffield, with the support of the Government, can pave the way alongside Northern Ireland on this issue.

Older polluting vehicles are a major source of the problems. We worked in partnership with the Government to deliver a solution, encouraging owners of commercial vehicles to replace them with compliant vehicles. It is not easy, and we would have welcomed additional support, particularly to help taxi drivers to transition to cleaner vehicles, but buses are the key. Several of our air quality hotspots in Sheffield are primarily influenced by buses. We have a fleet of about 400 and they are older than in most cities, with an average age of about 12 years.

We worked with the Government to tackle emissions, and the approach that they suggested to us, to which we were happy to respond, was to retrofit the fleet. Before the introduction of our clean air zone, the Government awarded the council cash through the clean bus technology fund. The project ran in two phases from 2018 to 2022. It delivered 292 vehicle retrofits using selective catalytic reduction technology, with the expectation that the emissions of those vehicles would then be equivalent to Euro 6 standards. Buses operating on high-frequency services on routes where air quality levels were being breached were prioritised throughout the project.

When the clean air zone was introduced, 94 buses operating in Sheffield were older than Euro 6 and had therefore not been retrofitted. In the discussions between the council and the Joint Air Quality Unit on the clean air zone, run by the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it was agreed that there would be clean air funding to provide sufficient support for further retrofit devices to be installed in the remaining non-compliant fleet.

Our clean air zone assessment forecast that all our buses would be retrofitted to a minimum Euro 6 standard and would deliver the significant reductions in nitrogen dioxide emissions that we needed, and so we were, in partnership with the Government, on course—until the Government hit a problem. After the launch of the clean air zone in late spring, the DFT informed the council that it had undertaken some initial studies on the real-world performance of the bus retrofit devices that it had required us to install.

The broad conclusion was that the performance of the retrofitted buses showed considerable variability, and that many were not performing at the expected equivalent Euro 6 standard. As a result, the Government paused new funding for selective catalytic reduction exhaust retrofitting and recommended that no further retrofit purchases be made until the research was completed. The DFT did not propose any changes to the clean air zone compliance status of the buses that had already been retrofitted while it carried out the further studies, and the council provided local exemptions from charges for the buses whose planned retrofit work could not proceed.

As a result of the initial study, the DFT commissioned further research and evaluation, which I understand it is on the brink of completing. The council was informed that the expected duration of the study was about six months, so I am guessing, given the timeline, that a formal position from the DFT should be imminent. From discussions with the Joint Air Quality Unit, the council understands that the main problem with the retrofit devices running in urban areas is that they do not reach the required temperatures to treat emissions as a result of the regular stop-start conditions. That happens significantly when buses run downhill, and anybody who knows Sheffield knows that there are a lot of hills to run down.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s raising this issue, because public transport is the key. It is a major solution to a lot of problems, including clean air. The strategy appears to be all over the place, and retrofitting diesel buses is not the answer. The Government have the ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—scheme for public transport, but I understand that of the 4,000 buses promised, fewer than half have been made, and 570 have been built by companies outside the UK. That worries me, because I think most of them should be built by UK companies.

Sheffield does have a lot of hills, and the answer is not batteries but hydrogen, which is a much better way of fuelling buses on hills. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at that, and I urge the Government to take resource away from diesel buses and to give councils and transport companies the opportunity to buy hydrogen or hydroelectric buses.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) will make some observations about hydrogen, which I think has enormous potential.

The Government’s study is clear that retrofit will not be a suitable way of mitigating the emissions from buses, so alternative solutions will be required. The point of today’s debate is that we need alternative solutions, including replacement buses—not refits—and electric buses, and exploring the potential of hydrogen. I will focus on electric.

Currently, about 75% of our bus fleet is not performing at the required Euro 6 standard, and a further 25% has had no change. Under direction from the Government, we were required to implement our clean air policy in the shortest possible time, but the failure of their retrofit strategy is putting our compliance at risk. That echoes the point that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made about the lack of coherence in the clean air strategy.

The Government need to commit to clean air solutions fast. I hope that, as a first step, the Minister will welcome the bid that the council is submitting, in conjunction with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority, to ZEBRA 2. Further flexibility in the use of our funding from the clean air fund, including drawdown of stretch funding and the potential for additional funding to support electric vehicle roll-out, must also be considered. However, we understand the pressures on the relatively small funding—it is a problem that it is so small, with £129 million available for the ZEBRA 2 programme—and we know that there are other priorities.

We recognise that with all ZEBRA bids, the funding provides only a proportion of the cost of vehicles, so co-operation with operators is key. Therefore, I want to reassure the Minister about the close dialogue that is happening with both major operators in Sheffield—First and Stagecoach—and about the relationship that they have with the council. Stagecoach’s managing director was in touch with me before this debate and stressed that Stagecoach is looking at the opportunities provided by ZEBRA 2 to lever in its own investment to provide 65 new electric vehicles on key routes in Sheffield. I know that First is looking at key routes that operate through both Sheffield and Rotherham.

In summary, reducing bus emissions in Sheffield is key to achieving the legal levels of nitrogen that we want and that the Government require of us as a city. Bus retrofit technology, recommended to us by the Government, has been found to be underperforming; 75% of our fleet, which has had it, is non-compliant, and the other 25% has not been treated at all. We do not have a timescale for when the Government will confirm the findings of their in-depth review of bus retrofit performance, but action is needed urgently.

Sheffield City Council has delivered all its clean air plan mitigations in the shortest possible time, which I know the Government have welcomed. However, we need Government support for our ZEBRA 2 submission. Further flexibility in the use of funding from the CAF, including the drawdown of stretch funding, will also help. We hope that a wider review of the potential for wider grant funding to upgrade buses in South Yorkshire will also be considered, with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority.

As he has the permission of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to make a speech, I call the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).

Thank you, Mr Robertson. This is a really important debate, because nitrogen dioxide is poisonous—particularly to children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) says. I congratulate him on raising this important issue.

I am pleased that Tinsley Meadows Primary School was built by Sheffield City Council, relocating the original school away from the motorway because the very high NO2 levels there were damaging to children’s health. One of the worst problems is that in inner-city areas, poorer communities often live close to major arterial roads. The roads running into the city of Sheffield are the ones where we tend to get the highest levels of pollution, so it is those communities who suffer most.

A point that I particularly want to make—it was very helpful to have a lead-in from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)—is that the topography of Sheffield is very challenging for traditional electric vehicles. Because of the hills, their range is less than it would be in flatter topographies. Vehicles have to be recharged more often, and the work they can do to complete their route schedules is therefore not as good as it might be elsewhere.

We have the possibility of hydrogen, which tends to allow for a much longer range. Wrightbus in Northern Ireland is already producing hydrogen vehicles for London, Aberdeen, Belfast and Dublin, showing the way forward. Very conveniently, in my constituency we also have ITM Power, which is the leading research organisation for green hydrogen in this country and one of the leading organisations in Europe. It is a manufacturer of plant that can produce green hydrogen, and it is already exporting that plant around Europe. There is a logic to linking up the refuelling stations that ITM Power could build with hydrogen buses in a city such as Sheffield. There need to be a number of buses to make it economical and cost-effective to have hydrogen refuelling stations. Joined-up government, with different Departments working together, would be really interesting and important.

The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic point. That would join up the whole strategy of hydrogen production with a utility vehicle providing a public transport solution and clean air. At 11.30 am, the all-party parliamentary group for the bus and coach industry will be meeting in W2. I believe that the Minister and the shadow Minister will be there, and we hope to promote the joined-up strategy that is necessary for hydrogen tech to take off.

I agree with the hon. Member about joining up. Indeed, the Minister can happily say good things about ITM Power and what the Government want to do, because the Government launched their hydrogen strategy nationally at ITM Power a couple of years ago. The Energy Secretary and the Chancellor have both recently been to visit ITM Power to show the Government’s support. It is well renowned, and it shows the way forward for green hydrogen. That is the way we should be moving.

I hope that the Minister will follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central in asking for more resources and more clean buses for Sheffield. When he is looking at new vehicles for Sheffield, I ask him seriously to look at the role that hydrogen buses can play and at how the Government can properly join this up.

ITM wants to play a role. It is happy to provide the refuelling capacity. It is happy to work with Government and bus companies. Let us have some joined-up thinking across Government and let us get things moving forward, not just for the clean air that we want for Sheffield, but as a major innovation and a major move forward for the use of hydrogen in buses in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this very important debate. I declare an interest: my sister lives in Sheffield, and I have visited her regularly for many decades. I certainly understand what the hon. Member means about all the hills. I have walked and driven up and down them, and I completely understand the challenges that Sheffield faces in comparison with many other cities.

As the hon. Member said at the beginning of his comments, the Government completely share the ambition to eliminate air pollution. It is toxic, particularly nitrous oxides; that is why we set up the clean air fund. There have been a whole range of different Government initiatives to work towards that. We are also under a legal requirement by court action to act as quickly as possible. We do not want to delay or wait for new technologies that may eventually be helpful; we want to act now. Part of that scheme was the clean air zone programme that applies across the UK for cities where nitrous oxides and other pollutants are above permitted levels. As the hon. Member mentioned, Sheffield was one of them. Sheffield launched its class C clean air zone on 27 February 2023.

Rother Valley borders Sheffield, and many of my constituents go to work and drive vans into the Sheffield clean air zone. They are being penalised and the clean air zone is adding more money on to their bills. There is also talk of a clean air zone, or ULEZ-style scheme, coming to Rotherham. Can the Minister assure me that clean air zones and ultra low emission zones will be introduced only in areas where there is a business case for them and where people want them? At the moment, people in Rother Valley are being hit by the clean air zone in Sheffield, and they are worried that a similar one will come to Rotherham as well.

That is a valid point. Clean air zones impose costs on people, but they are only necessary and only required where air pollution is above the legal limit. In those places, not only are we required to introduce them by law, but it is the right thing to do to reduce air pollution as quickly as possible. The clean air zones are temporary. They are there only while air pollution exceeds the permitted levels. Clean air zones are supported by the Government, but the design and structure of them, including which vehicles are included or excluded, and their funding are decided by local authorities. As a result, all the clean air zones in the country are variations on a theme. For example, ordinary cars are not included in the Sheffield scheme, but taxis are. It is different in other places.

Because of the need to act quickly, the Government introduced the retrofit programme. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, that has been troubled. I have been in this job for three weeks, and it has landed on my plate. As he says, it has not performed as we expected in real-world conditions. We are currently analysing exactly what the impact is and what the mitigations can be, and we will publish the results soon. I cannot release them now—we need to make exec decisions—but when we do, it will be within the framework of eliminating air pollution in Sheffield and other cities as quickly as possible, as we are legally required to do, and as is the right thing to do.

Sheffield has an application under ZEBRA 2. Those applications close at the end of December, I think. Does the Minister agree that something the Government could do is make sure that by the end of January, or the beginning of February at the very latest, those decisions are taken, the contract is offered, and we move on to ZEBRA 3 and get all of the £400 million spent on these carbon-zero buses?

I will come to the hon. Member’s point. The retrofitting programme was only ever going to be an interim scheme, because those were the buses we had at that moment. As basically all other hon. Members have said, the ultimate long-term ambition is to go to zero-emission buses, for reasons of both climate change and air pollution. In the national bus strategy in 2020, the Government committed to 4,000 zero-emission buses; 1,600 of them are on the road at the moment. We have been pushing that in a variety of ways. We are also committed to announcing a date for the phasing out of non-zero-emission buses, which will be done in the near future.

There are two schemes for zero-emission buses at the moment. First, there was ZEBRA 1, which provided £270 million of funding. The beneficiaries included Sheffield, which got four buses, which will start in January, and the South Yorkshire metropolitan area, which got 27 zero-emission buses. We then opened ZEBRA 2. I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central wrote to one of my predecessors expressing interest from Sheffield in that scheme, and that Sheffield has lodged expressions of interest, which is great. The deadline is 15 December. I cannot announce the results, because the applications are not in yet.

On the request from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), we want to act as quickly as possible. I will certainly urge officials to announce the outcomes of the bid as quickly as possible because, as I said, we want to act quickly for reasons of both climate change and air pollution.

Various hon. Members mentioned hydrogen buses. The UK Government are technologically neutral: we have been very careful to try not to say that one technology will work and another technology will not, not least because we do not know how technology is going to progress. There are also very varying conditions, and one type of technology might be better in one situation compared with another.

The hon. Members for Sheffield Central and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned hills and the challenges they pose for battery buses. For longer ranges—there are buses in rural areas that have to go far longer distances—hydrogen buses may turn out to be more suitable than battery buses. However, I know that battery technology is advancing very rapidly. If we compare the debate now with a few years ago and five years ago, certainly from a manufacturer’s point of view, there is a lot more emphasis on batteries as the ultimate solution, rather than hydrogen. The price of batteries has dropped by 90% since 2010 and the range is increasing by about 10% a year—it has increased by about 45% over the last four years. Hopefully, those technological improvements will continue and help us to decarbonise all forms of transport in cost-effective ways.

We are supporting hydrogen. There are various Government programmes supporting hydrogen buses. The Government provided £30 million to support the West Midlands Combined Authority’s scheme for hydrogen buses, which are about to be launched there. The ultra-low and low-emission bus fund is supporting 20 hydrogen buses in Liverpool, and there are other hydrogen buses elsewhere. We will carry on supporting that, because hydrogen could end up being the absolutely appropriate technology for certain situations.

I was going to talk about the point that the hon. Member raised about ITM production, but I will give way.

I hope that the Minister will respond to this point as well. Given that the Government want to be technology-neutral, they ought to explore hydrogen as well as simple battery buses. Would Sheffield not be a very good place to expand their understanding of how hydrogen buses can work, because of the topography and ITM Power, and to try to roll out more hydrogen buses in a fleet, to see whether that delivers what everyone wants?

The hon. Member makes a very valid point, which I will discuss with officials. I want to pick up on a point that he made earlier—

Further to what my Labour colleagues the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, we in Rother Valley would also like hydrogen buses, and we hope to join in. There is cross-party support for hydrogen buses in South Yorkshire. I hope the Minister takes that point away.

I am reading the message loud and clear: everyone in the room likes hydrogen buses. I will discuss them with officials.

On the point about ITM Power, I was very interested to hear about that production facility. Again, as a Government, we are very keen not just to procure buses and other vehicles from other countries, but to make them in the UK—such as with Wrightbus in Northern Ireland and Alexander Dennis in Falkirk, Scotland—and to produce the power as much as possible in the UK, whether it is hydrogen or electric batteries. In my three weeks in the job, I have been doing quite a lot of work on sustainable aviation fuels. We want to make them in the UK, and to look at the whole supply chain and the whole energy transition that we are going through.

This technological transition creates an awful lot of opportunities in different sectors, including hydrogen. I do not like the phrase “green jobs”, because it has become a bit of a cliché, but these are green jobs. They are real jobs, they really exist, and they are often highly skilled. I have been meeting many companies that are entering this sector or developing the new decarbonised transport sector, if we want to call it that, and there are huge opportunities. The more rapidly we develop as a country, the more we can use it as an opportunity internationally as well for exports. If we solve the problems with hydrogen buses, for example, and work out how to make them work, how to power them and so on, I am sure that there will be an export opportunity for UK plc as well.

I am ready to wrap up. This has been a really important debate, and I am very glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central managed to secure it. He made many valid points. We will be publishing the results of the bus retrofit programme shortly, in terms of looking at how we can mitigate it. If Sheffield has not applied for ZEBRA 2 and is interested, it knows what to do. The deadline is 15 December. I will press officials to announce the results as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.