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A Question of Time
ON November 12, 1951, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe told the House of Commons that between 80 and 90 hauliers whose businesses had been scheduled for acqnisition had been offered a reprieve of six months by the Road Haulage Executive. "That gives us time during the period of transition before new legislation is brought in." More than half the period has already gone and it seems unlikely that a Bill will be introduced before the six months ending early in May.
There are several weighty reasons for the delay. The new Government has inherited a desperate situation. It has to take urgent action on many financial and economic matters which it no doubt considers even more important than revision of the. Transport Act. It is natural also that the Minister of Transport should seek to make that revision both comprehensive and enduring. He wants an amending Act that can be defended on all points and he probably wants the whole of the policy so far as road transport is concerned to be put into effect at the same time. He must do this to give the dispossessed hauliers a reasonable chance of re-establishing themselves in the industry. If all restrictions be lifted some time before the former owners come back, they may find that the traffic they had hoped to regain had passed firmly into the hands of operators whose businesses suffered no eclipse. This would obviously be a most unsatisfactory result which would do much to negative other advantages gained. '
Paradoxically, the concern that the Minister is evincing for the welfare of the ex-hauliers may seern to them more like neglect. Their future becomes even more precarious as time goes on. It is easy to understand why those people who favour denationalization are growing impatient as the days go by and the weeks lengthen into months and there is no sign of action by the Government. Nothing ever remains the same. The situation which now seems reasonably propitious for denationalization may change rapidly. On the whole, the longer the delay, the more likely that difficulties will arise.
, Ebbing Tide The number of ex-hauliers waiting and wanting to come back must become less, even if the rate of decrease be low. The tide of traffic is at the moment on the ebb. Whether it will return depends upon a number of factors none of which lies within the haulier's control. Scarcity of traffic does not encourage the investment of money in transport.. The operator has also to keep an uneasy eye cocked at the next General Election. It may be a long way off at the moment but it is inevitable and nobody knows what effect its results will have upon the road transport industry. • The train of consequences set in motion by national ization is still continuing. Some of the consequences will be just as unfavourable to the haulier who comes back as they are at present to the Road Haulage Executive. The C-licensed vehicles that sprang up like weeds in the field the R.H.E. neglected to cultivate properly are still increasing. The more they spread and the more firmly they become established, the harder will it be for the returning haulier to find a place in the sun.
There is no reason to suppose that the denizens of the Ivory Tower are allowing themselves to drift with the course of events. One might imagine that the morale of the R.H.E. would be as low as that of a beleaguered town almost past hope of succour and uncertain only of the exact date of its capitulation. This is far from being the case. Most of the executive posts in the R.H.E. are held by former operators or by members of their staffs. They accepted jobs in the nationalized organization partly because they had little choice. No doubt many of them had mental reservations, but mostly they have served the R.H.E. faithfully. Any failure has been the fault of the machine rather than of the men set to .work it.
As is natural, they have possibly not worked with quite the same zest as when they were running their own businesses. Now they see a chance of getting those businesses back. What more likely than that they should make an extra effort to secure more traffic and to keep the vehicles moving? That is what they are paid to do, so that the Ivory Tower and the public can have no complaint. The men who went out of free enterprise to put on the State livery need not go to the lengths of the unjust steward in the parable in order to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. Merely by doing their duty they are winning golden opinions from the • people they hope to get as customers when the R.H.E. is liquidated.
Keen Emulation The customer who wants the impossible is no longer told that the day of miracles is over. The trader who complains is mollified. I venture the guess that emulation has never been so keen in the ranks of the R.H.E. as it is now, Ironically the challenge from without has produced an echo inside the Ivory Tower. The warhorse scents the battle of free enterprise from afar and the spirit of competition has found an entry into the stronghold of monopoly.
All this is unlikely to please either the hauliers still under free enterprise or the ex-hauliers rusticating in the hope of denationalization. Operators who did not go over with their businesses will not be much attracted by the prospect of receiving their vehicles back if their rivals at present inside the R.H.E. contrive to take all the business out with them. Hauliers who gave up only part of their fleet are in a no more happy position when it comes to recapturing their customers. Far-sighted traders as well as hauliers have no wish for a process of denationalization which merely divides the empire of the R.H.E. among the former operators at present inside it who can very soon, if it suit their convenience, reunite into a formidable combine.
On the whole, time is not on the side of the ex-haulier. The stream of traffic that once flowed strongly in the channel he provided has been diverted, and if too long a period elapses will entirely forget the way to his door. His problem is the central fact round which the Government's plan must revolve. Without him it would be a comparatively simple matter to abolish the 25-mile limit almost at once and leave the rest of denationalization until a later stage. This procedure would please a good Many hauliers, but would not help the man who wants to come back. If he be expected to take the risk of reinvesting capital in his old industry it is only fair that he should be given a clear run for his money. He cannot be left kicking his heels..for long after existing operators have been given the benefits of their full freedom.