Thursday, May 10, 2018

Multimodal Show Gave the Chance for Freight and Logistics Stakeholders to Discuss Brexit

UK Forwarders, Hauliers and Warehousemen - All Look to the Government for Action
Shipping News Feature
UK – The Multimodal Exhibition which took place at the beginning of this month provided a platform for a larger than ever range of topics up for review at the various seminars. Editorial staff being stretched thin on the ground by the simultaneous discussions at this year's event we asked Andrew Thorne, Senior Advisor at specialist freight and logistics consultants KTF Stone Limited, to move around the show and report back with his take on how the all-important Brexit discussions are progressing. What follows is his take on where the industry, and indeed the country, stand at this point in time.

The many interesting seminars at last week’s Multimodal show of course included several driven by Brexit. Although looking at various aspects such as the Irish border, AEO status, perishables and the wider European and global view, it was noticeable that the common denominators were high attendance, a determined attempt to avoid the political aspects (an approach I intend to replicate here) and a singular failure to come to any firm conclusions on what steps the logistics industry needs to take to meet the challenges of 2019 and beyond.

I hasten to add that this was in no way due to any lack of expertise on the part of the speakers or facilitators at the sessions – indeed, the assembled panels comprised many eminent figures at the sharp end of the preparations, making it all the more disconcerting that their focus is still obliged to be on ensuring the right questions are being asked rather than getting to potential answers.

With most sessions starting with the observation that little had changed from last year, and many including an audience question along the lines of ‘will we be discussing this next year?’, concern is mounting that timelines are getting tighter for the industry to react to any new demands and requirements. To recap – although the target date to conclude negotiations on the ‘divorce’ agreement and transitional arrangements is still October, several speakers emphasised that the EU negotiators want to see more progress, particularly but not exclusively around the Irish border situation, prior to the European Council meeting at the end of June. If sufficient progress is made by these milestones, the current aim is for a transition period from next March to December 2020.

A best-case scenario would probably be that in June businesses were given a clear indication that new regulatory requirements would be minimal; even this would only provide a window of nine months for preparations, and the reality is that any kind of detailed direction, let alone agreement, is looking increasingly ambitious as each day passes.

Whether due to optimism, naivety or traditional stoicism, I had a strong sense from discussing with fellow audience members that while there is not yet panic in the industry about the worst case scenarios (BIFA’s session View from both sides of the Irish border was particularly eye-opening) there is a groundswell of opinion that if the authorities are not yet at that stage, they should be. That the Freight Transport Association (FTA), for example, is driven to framing a ‘Keep Britain Trading’ agenda in its discussions with government that includes such basic topics as the number of freight vehicles allowed to cross the border and the alignment of customs classifications is a source of grave concern.

The lack of a timely steer from the government is not just about reduced time to address problems, it is also about missed opportunities: metaphorically seismic events such as Brexit drive creativity and can accelerate innovation. It was interesting to see, at one of the UK Warehousing Association (UKWA) sessions on digitalisation, discussions already touching on how blockchain technology combined with the wider adoption of ‘organic’ polymer RFID chips could help to achieve the frictionless border at some point in the future. Government, in spite of its own hard-earned experience with major technological projects, is too ready to trumpet the potential of these kinds of solutions while vastly underestimating the lead time and cost to business of their implementation, and especially to small and medium enterprises.

My overall takeaway from the various sessions reinforced my opinion that the way the logistics and supply chain manages the consequences of the changing regulatory environment, whatever that eventually looks like, will have a material and highly visible impact on the perceived success or failure of Brexit with the general public. If the vast majority of players can continue to serve their customers and the wider consumer market efficiently, the politicians should be happy to take credit for successfully negotiating one of the bigger pitfalls to withdrawal.

As such, it is astonishing that there is not more evidence of these same politicians engaging closely with the respective trade bodies, who are ready and willing to contribute to finding a solution. It is doubly frustrating since these bodies jointly represent an industry that is flexible, adaptive and takes pride in problem solving, but will be disproportionately impacted by the changes themselves as well as the cost of change. Government, hurry up!

Thanks to Andrew for that report, and regular attendees at the trade shows at the NEC will note Multimodal 2019 (hopefully by which time Brexit will not be the main topic) will take place June 18-20 and thus avoid clashing with the CV Show running April 30 to May 2. A sensible move as many visitors have a foot in both freight and commercial vehicle camps, and two such events within a week or so of each other definitely affects attendances.

Photo: Peter Ward, UKWA CEO addresses a seminar audience at Multimodal 2018.