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Torfaen Council discusses what vehicles to buy in the future

DECIDING what vehicles, from bin lorries to cars, councils should buy in the future has been compared to the VHS v Betamax dilemma. 

The rival formats split households in the 1980s until VHS won out as the most popular and widely used home video player and recorder. 

Rachel Jowitt, Torfaen Borough Council’s director for the environment who also has responsibility for the authority’s assets, made the comparison after councillors questioned her on electric vehicles and the possibility of alternative fuels to diesel. 

She also told councillors uncertainty over technology could mean it will continue buying diesel vehicles over the next two years – despite Welsh Government requirements that councils becomes net zero carbon – meaning any carbon emissions produced are offset – by 2030. 

Ms Jowitt told members of the scrutiny committee considering its climate and nature emergency annual report: “Hydrogen was ruled out at one point and is now coming back a bit. It’s almost like the VHS/Betamax conundrum but it’s a much bigger scale as our vehicles cost a bit more than a video player.” 

Energy and carbon reduction manager Grenville Ham, in response to a question whether the council is considering using biodiesel, said while no final decision has been made the drawback is land needed for biodiversity or food production is used for plants to power vehicles. But he said hydrogen could be used in the future. 

It’s hoped hydrogen, which emits only water, could be generated in south east Wales but Mr Ham said the infrastructure isn’t currently in place. Larger vehicles such as buses, or those carrying freight, are considered more suitable for hydrogen as they would require larger batteries, Mr Ham said. 

Ms Jowitt explained it was “really important” the council doesn’t “go off on our own” on such decisions as it wouldn’t be able to benefit from economies of scale. She said: “We could have to make some difficult decisions over the next year or 18 months and it may see us purchase some diesel vehicles in the next round as the life of alternatives vehicles cannot guarantee service resilience for residents and for me that’s just as important as 2030.” 

Work is taking place with other councils in the Cardiff Capital Region but Ms Jowitt said: “There’s not clarity from the Welsh Government on the way for vehicles, biodiesel, hydrogen or electric vehicles. It’s a bit of a case of trial and error while we need to ensure services are delivered as well.” 

Pontnewydd Labour councillor Stuart Ashely said staff could also use e-bikes for travelling for work, though Ms Jowitt said this would likely be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

As part of its carbon reduction commitments, agreed after the council declared a nature and climate emergency in 2019, it will support and help the wider borough to become net zero by 2050 and take account of climate change in its planning as well as protects and enhances Torfaen’s natural resources and biodiversity.

Since 2019/20 the council has reduced emissions from its buildings by 19 per cent, began installing solar panels on schools and 11 per cent of its fleet, which is 15 vehicles, are now electric. 

Mr Ham said the council currently has 18 electric vehicle charging points and through work with Transport for Wales hopes to increase that to 50 next year as it wants to be ahead of demand. There are also 21 double charging points, that can power 42 cars, available for public use. He said: “We’ve had discussions with Transport for Wales about ultra rapid charging points which will be of most benefit to residents, especially those who do not have on street parking, as they do not want to be charging for six hours when they could do it for 20 minutes.” 

Ms Jowitt said Caerphilly council is currently running a pilot on “how to solve the conundrum of electric vehicle charging on terraced streets” and said issues such as cables running across pavements, and keeping them clear for pedestrians, need to be considered. 

The council is also mapping where commercially available electric charging points are available and is using Levelling Up funding to provide publicly available charging points in Pontypool and working with businesses, such as the owners of the Cwmbran Centre, that also want to provide charging points. 

Across the four elements of its climate declaration, the council has 66 actions with 11 marked as completed, 43 that are on track with 10 in the amber category that aren’t on target. 

Two targets are marked as red as work hasn’t yet started and they are a review of the expenses policy to encourage more staff to use sustainable ways of travel to get to work and a review of a cycle to work scheme. Pressures on the human resources team have been blamed for the delay. 

The committee will make recommendations on electric vehicle charging, supporting cycling to work and monitoring any uptake in walking and cycling as well as how the council shares information on its work around the nature emergency, such as a reduction in grass cutting, and promotes household energy reduction and saving programmes.

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Torfaen Council discusses what vehicles to buy in the future

an electric charging point
An electric car charging point in Morrisons in Cwmbran