Thursday, June 22, 2017

UK Politics and Brexit Continues to Dominate the Concerns of Freight and Road Haulage Experts

Queen's Speech Met With Disappointment, but Proposed London Road Charges Prompt Cautious Optimism
Shipping News Feature
UK – With the continued uncertainty following the election it is hardly a surprise that politics, particularly the shadow of Brexit, continues to dominate the attention of the bodies responsible for representing the British freight, logistics and road haulage sectors. The Queen's speech on Wednesday, when the Government set out its future plans, has caused more than a little concern. British International Freight Association (BIFA) director general, Robert Keen said:

“It was no surprise that today’s Queen’s Speech was dominated by bills related to Brexit. It’s also no surprise that many of the items contained in the Conservative election manifesto did not make an appearance. But it is very disappointing that the Conservatives’ pre-election pledge to invest £40 billion in transport infrastructure improvements, and expand UK aviation capacity, appears to have been overlooked.

“We are left to assume that the procrastination on these matters, which are central to the activities of BIFA members that manage the movement of goods within domestic and international supply chains, is likely to continue. Whilst there were eight bills tackling Brexit alone; the real details of the Government’s approach to Brexit, and whether it will be hard or soft - was noticeably absent.

“The Customs Bill appears to include legislation that is designed to help the UK develop a standalone UK Customs regime post Brexit, which could mean difficulties for any of our members’ clients that were hoping to see legislation that would limit changes to the current situation where imports and exports within the EU are tariff free.

“Now we look forward to seeing greater details on how the Trade Bill will introduce a legal framework for Britain to agree free trade deals with countries and trading blocs around the world.”

The simple truth is that many key figures in the industry have little confidence that the present government, or indeed the opposition, really understands the nature of export/import traffic and the ramifications of taking the wrong road. Governments have a persistent habit of imposing wrong-headed policies and choosing to ignore all professional advice, whether it be the imposition of PFIs, rail franchises or a badger cull, both examples which have persisted despite ever spiralling costs set against poor performance. To choose the wrong path during these crucial stages will result in consequences which will wound the country for the foreseeable future.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) has also been critical, stating that the Queen’s Speech was a missed opportunity to implement long-awaited reforms of the Operator Licensing system which governs commercial vehicle operations in the UK. James Firth, FTA’s Head of Licensing Policy and Compliance Information, said:

“The system has failed to keep pace with the dynamic nature of the logistics industry and is now stifling progress and growth. Our members have customers waiting but their business is paralysed until the license is granted.

“The failure to announce a review in an otherwise quite slender Queen’s Speech now means the Government is dragging its feet on this issue. Whilst Brexit Bills will take up much parliamentary time, potential laws in other sectors have been abandoned so some time should now be available for what are politically uncontentious measures that would help with business efficiency. FTA is disappointed it has not taken the opportunity to listen to its own regulators and reform and streamline the commercial vehicle regulatory system.”

The FTA was more supportive of new proposals by the Mayor of London for road charging based on elements such as distance travelled and vehicle emissions could be a positive step for freight operators - provided they don’t simply add cost. Natalie Chapman, FTA’s Head of Policy for London, said:

“The Congestion Charge has arguably played a role in suppressing traffic demand in central London, but FTA has always argued that it is a blunt tool which fails to recognise the essential role that freight plays in serving London's businesses, residents and visitors. New and emerging technology could play a pivotal part in providing a more sophisticated system that accounts for the essential role of the vehicle and the time of day and incentivises cleaner vehicles.”

In his latest consultancy on transport in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan says he aims to reduce freight traffic in the capital by 10% by 2026. The FTA believes this is an unrealistic target given the needs of London’s growing population and the Mayor’s agenda on demanding HGVs change shape to increase direct vision – a change which may cost load space, thus requiring more vehicles on London’s roads. Ms Chapman added:

“It costs so much to deliver into London that the road freight industry is already highly load efficient. There may be some benefits from further consolidation we can gain, but these will be outweighed by the needs of London’s larger population. The real gains in traffic management will come from private car use – if car users can be enabled or encouraged to switch to public transport, cycling or walking then London’s transport network could become exponentially more efficient.

“We need to ensure that any changes to road charging actually promote more efficient use of the transport network, and are not simply taxes by another name adding cost to operating and living in London.”

Meanwhile advocates of rail freight certainly see the bright side of the proposed charging regime. Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager at the Campaign for Better Transport said:

“The Mayor needs to safeguard more rail freight sites in its strategy so that more construction materials can be brought into the centre of London, as rail always brings in 40% of aggregates. For example each freight train carries enough materials to build 30 houses. Rail was also used to bring in construction materials and remove waste/spoil for CrossRail and the Olympics.

“We support the proposal to lobby the DfT for more rail freight capacity. However, TfL needs to recognise that some traffic is destined for the capital and that rail freight brings huge economic, safety and environmental benefits and that it is already avoiding peak hours on the North, West and South London Lines.”

The arguments for improved and increased access, by both rail and water are incontestable but the FTA raise a valid point as London continues to grow and the demands for more and faster home and retail deliveries develop. The Mayor’s blunt instruments might make fine sound bites for the coterie of media he loves to surround himself with, but does little to address the realities of what the situation might be long after he has vacated his office. Many of the proposed changes to road haulage in the capital, already an expensive place to live and work, will come at a cost to consumers and small operators alike, one wonders if Sadiq Khan has actually addressed accurately what the extra costs for individuals and businesses will be?

Photo: Black Rod hammers on the door of the Commons three times to show that admittance to the Queen’s messenger cannot be refused.