I led a debate in Westminster Hall today making the case for government support in replacing Sheffield’s bus fleet with electric or hydrogen powered vehicles to improve air quality in the city.  

In my speech, I raised the impact of poor air quality on people’s health, and the need for alternative solutions to our retrofitted buses, which do not perform at the expected Euro 6 standard.  

The Government need to commit to clean air solutions fast, and here in Sheffield we need further governmental support to reduce bus emissions through electric or hydrogen buses. I pressed the minister for further funding and support to ensure Sheffield City Council can make these changes. 

You can read my speech in Westminster Hall below and read the full debate here. 

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. 

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. 

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. 


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