John Procter interview: Hydrogen-powered cars could be the future for Leeds, says Yorkshire MEP

Yorkshire MEP John Procter at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.
Yorkshire MEP John Procter at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

John Procter has been kept busy in recent weeks with a succession of representatives from major car manufacturers beating a path to his office door in Brussels.

They want to speak to the Yorkshire MEP about his role in the European Union environmental legislation that could have a dramatic impact on the types of cars driven across the continent, including in the UK, for decades to come.

But the 51-year-old, a councillor in Leeds until being de-selected by members of his local Conservative group last year, believes a solution to the problem of cutting harmful carbon emissions from vehicles may be found much closer to home in his own city.

John Procter and wife Rachael served as Leeds city councillors until being deselected.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, Mr Procter talks about his role as a shadow rapporteur on the draft EU legislation on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for new cars.

His position means he is responsible for the controversial topic within his own European Conservatives and Reformists Group of MEPs, and plays an important role in reaching a political compromise.

Whether the target proposed by the European Commission for a 30 per cent reduction in CO2 from new cars or the even more challenging goal of 45 per cent suggested by MEPs is enacted, Europe’s car giants are being forced to look away from petrol engines to less polluting electric batteries and hydrogen power.

“Over the last three months or so I think every motor manufacturer there is has been through my office to talk about their issues,” he says. “They find these targets incredibly challenging, they say it is going to put a lot of pressure on them.

“There is a lot of concern on whether the technology is quite there yet for mass manufacture of electric vehicles in particular in terms of battery quality and the degradation of batteries over a ten year period.

“What is the chargeability of a battery going to be when it is ten years old, no-one quite knows, is the truth of it.”

He describes going for a drive in a Toyota hydrogen car, the type of vehicle that will be needed in much greater numbers if the proposed targets are to be met, in Brussels a month ago. “The gentleman starts talking to me about a very exciting project in a city called, er, ‘Leds’. I said ‘do you mean Leeds by any chance?’.”

The project in question is H21 Leeds City Gate, a pioneering feasibility study which established that converting the UK gas network to carry 100 per cent hydrogen, as opposed to natural gas, in a bid to cut carbon emissions was possible and economically viable. The scheme is a precursor to a much wider project presenting a design for how major urban centres in the North, like Leeds, Bradford and Hull, could have their networks converted to hydrogen between 2028 and 2035.

And it coincides with a nationwide effort to replace iron mains pipes with plastic polyethylene pipes, a move which will safeguard the network for years to come but also means the pipes are capable of transporting alternative, and less polluting, fuels such as hydrogen.

“The ultimate goal will be as a test bed to see if we could move to having all hydrogen gas in the pipe network in Leeds, not relying on natural gas”, says Mr Procter. “Why is that a good idea, creating hydrogen is done two ways. One is to split gas, the other way is to split electricity.

“There is a surplus of electricity in terms of power generators, so there is a huge opportunity to create hydrogen through some of our surplus electricity in our power stations in Yorkshire and use that gas in our gas network in Leeds, and push all that forward and use that to power cars.

“You could have almost a filling station on every street corner because you have a gas network there that would be utilising hydrogen gas.”

Mr Procter says the move towards hydrogen and electric vehicles prompted a BMW representative to predict to him that conventional engines in cars will be a thing of the past by 2040, possibly even sooner.

And though the UK is set to leave the European Union next year, he says cars on British roads will still likely conform to European standards as the country is not a big enough market for manufacturers to make us a special case.

Citing the need for a completely new generation of cars, like the Jaguar I-Pace, which can make best use of the emerging technology, the MEP says business leaders and policy-makers need to make sure jobs that produce that technology stay in the UK and Europe.

The air quality in Leeds is one of the worst in the UK, with 11 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre of air. And the Labour-run city council’s plan to improve air quality would, amongst other things, involve taxing high-polluting taxis, HGVs and buses using the city centre, enforced with some 140 sets of CCTV cameras monitoring vehicles’ number plates.

“I’m not a fan of stopping motor vehicles from going into city centres, to keep city centres alive you need to transfer people into them,” says Mr Procter.

“When I was a city councillor I was clear and direct that you needed to allow that to happen, not to frustrate people going about their business, otherwise you just drive everything out of the city centre.

“If there is a pollution issue, you need to clean up the polluting vehicles.”

A Leeds city councillor since 1992, Mr Procter was de-selected by local party members last September and replaced by Wetherby Town Mayor, Norma Harrington.

The move came less than a year after he became a member of the European Parliament, and he says some local Conservatives were unhappy with his dual role.

Though he says the leader of the Conservative group at Leeds City Council and his leader in the European Parliament were happy with the situation, “there were people in my local association who had a slightly different view”.

He adds: “That is their prerogative. Everyone goes for re-selection in my party, we are a democratic party, and what happened, happened.”