Thursday, December 12, 2013

Road Haulage and Freight Groups Speak Out On Infrastructure and Fuel Duty Changes

Government's Autumn Statement Met with Mixed Feelings
Shipping News Feature

UK – As is so often the case, two of the country’s leading logistics related Associations have been reading from the same hymn sheet in the past week when speaking out on the major road transport issues affecting the country. Both the Road Haulage (RHA) and Freight Transport (FTA) Associations issued press releases leading up to, and commenting on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Whilst these held both positive and negative elements there was wholehearted praise for some infrastructure adjustments which were warmly welcomed.

Firstly the news that the controversial plan to implement a toll on a stretch of the proposed new A14 (the Huntingdon southern bypass) had been scrapped with the upgrade now to be fully government funded was met with delight. The FTA declaring that common sense had at last prevailed whilst RHA Southern and Eastern Regional Director John Howells, commented:

“We have been against the suggestion since it was first raised nearly two years ago. It would have meant a tax on the economy of East Anglia and Suffolk as hauliers would have had to pass on the additional costs. In addition, it would have greatly undermined the competitiveness of the Port of Felixstowe and other ports in the region by adding to the cost base of haulage to and from the port.”

The RHA spearheaded a campaign which saw them distribute over 4,000 stickers protesting against the proposal and, together with the FTA voiced concern to the Highways Agency (HA) through consultation, saying that the financial shortfall would have to be picked up by those using the route, including the transport and logistics industry with motorists forced to use the route, the arterial road carrying traffic from the port of Felixstowe to and from the Midlands, due to the lack of any suitable alternative.

Just a couple of days later there was more good news when Scottish Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP announced the trial of a 50 mph speed limit on the A9 between Perth and Inverness. In a letter to the A9 Safety Group, Mr Brown said that the trial, which will last 36 months and is to be introduced at the same time as the Average Speed Cameras previously recommended by the A9 Safety Group, is aimed at improving the operational performance of the route. The announcement prompted Malcolm Bingham FTA Head of Road Network Management Policy and a contributor to the A9 group for the FTA, to comment:

“We welcome the opportunity of such a trial as we believe the current differential in speed limits between HGVs and other vehicles increase the road safety risk. This trial will provide some much needed evidence to help determine if there are any advantages, on safety grounds, to set the speed limit of an HGV to 50mph.”

The FTA had previously voiced disappointment that there had not been a move towards reducing the speed differential on the single carriageway road, stating that it agreed that the introduction of the speed cameras would represent an enforced levelling of the playing field for those who comply with the A9 40mph limit. The Minister has said that the trial will work alongside a safe driving campaign run by the haulage industry and the wider work of the A9 Group, and that the proposed speed limit pilot will apply to HGV’s weighing more than 7.5 tonnes.

The A9 remains one of Scotland's most important links. The Scottish Government remains committed to dualling the route by 2025 and this pilot is being proposed as part of the wider engineering, enforcement and education measures being delivered in advance of the dualling programme being completed.

The RHA were equally enthusiastic about the decision saying it came following calls from the local haulage community which stretched back years and would provide a boost for road safety. Phil Flanders, Director of RHA Scotland, noted:

“For the trial period, HGV’s will no longer be subject to the 40 mph limit, a legal restriction that is far below the capability of the road and modern vehicles. We anticipate a smoother flow of traffic and a substantial reduction to the frustration among car drivers that the low speed limit creates. Many motorists have been unable to understand why HGVs travel at a speed that held them up so unnecessarily, that is why some trucks have had stickers pointing to the legal limit.

“The majority of HGVs are driven in an exemplary manner, the focus on HGV’s is a good time to stress to the industry that we should be working to eliminate the instances of bad or inconsiderate driving that let the industry down. One example is taking too long to overtake another HGV on dual carriageways and two-lane motorways, so holding up motorists.”

Moving to the major national news of the week, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the FTA seemed happier than the road haulage lobby saying confirmation that UK fuel duty would be frozen next year was a positive step, both Associations however were generally critical and still calling for a cut in the rate, necessary they insist to provide business confidence. Theo de Pencier, FTA’s Chief Executive said:

“George Osborne’s announcement today is good but not good enough. Whilst the FTA is delighted with the Chancellor’s confirmation that fuel duty will be frozen next year, we would have liked more, with a cut in fuel prices rather than just a freeze. As with all government announcements the devil is in the detail, and we would have liked the Chancellor to commit to making vehicle excise duty stable."

Both group’s referred to the FairFuel UK campaign, which they jointly supported, and RHA Director of Policy Jack Semple summed up his organisation’s feelings saying:

“UK fuel duty is still by far the highest in the EU, adding costs to businesses and to everything we buy, quite apart from the burden on UK hauliers. Of course we welcome today’s freeze, but we consider that more could have been done. [The FairFuelUK campaign] has already seen duty held back by 13 pence a litre, compared with the course set by the Treasury in spring 2010. Hauliers remain under intense pressure on costs and the cumulative impact of the past five years on the road haulage community, for hauliers and their drivers, has been severe. Demand for road haulage services is still well below 2007/8 levels. Hauliers must be able to reinvest in their businesses with modern vehicles, a reduction in fuel duty today would have meant they would have been more able to afford to do so.”

Prior to the statement the RHA had called on the government to review its approach to the use of bio-methane and calling for subsidisation of sustainable fuels, to examine its long term strategy and give a clear indication that it is committed to the low carbon agenda and that it would support companies seeking to use fuels like bio-methane. In the event it was the FTA who professed delight that the Chancellor intended to maintain the differential between the main rate of fuel duty and the rate for road fuel gases such as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for 10 years saying the measure would provide businesses with the certainty they need to invest in alternatively fuelled commercial vehicles.

The RHA however, whilst welcoming some of the measures announce, particularly the increasing of resources to seek out and prosecute fuel frauds, plainly thought the measure to maintain differentials on the gas fuels did not go far enough with Jack Semple concluding:

“We will be reviewing the impact of freezing the duty differential between diesel and methane (natural gas and bio-methane). This will have an immediate significant cost benefit to very large companies but it is clear to us that the government had given little consideration as to how this will impact those SME’s who may be unable readily to use methane. This is the first time the government has, in effect, discriminated between operators on a major area of cost. We also note with concern the lack of a more detailed statement of policy or objectives in the uptake of methane in the road haulage sector.”

Photo: Shades of Butch Cassidy and friend as Chancellor Osborne leaves with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander to deliver the Autumn Statement.