Is the 1933 Act I ining the Industry?
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AS we approach the beginning of another year and the end of the first complete year of goods-vehicle licensing, it is opportune to take stock of the results, to date, of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, and to survey the situation as a whole.
Let uS first examine the position of the licence holder. Many B-licence operators have already had their second taste of powder and one cardinal fact has emerged. At the termination of the first currency period of a licence, operations during the basic year have little or no bearing on renewals, especially as regards area of operation.
Are B Licences Local?
Those who were originally granted a fairly wide radius and have not utilized lo the full the facilities granted, have, in many cases, been further restricted upon renewal. In spite of legal judgments to the contrary, the Licensing Authorities have chosen to regard this class of licence as being purely local in character, and a marked tendency has been shown to restrict them to a uniform level.
The position of A-licence operators as regards renewals is still a matter for conjecture. It would appear safe, however, to assume that the formula of the objectors will be: "Why could not these goods be as well carried by rail?"
In many cases, applicants have not shown the slightest intelligent interest in their own affairs. The least that can be expected of a witness is that he should, know the approximate boundaries of his licence grant, and any other condition attached to it. Often, however, applicants endeavouring to establish a claim to, say, a 50-mile radius, have quoted as evidence, journeys to some place which, upon reference to a map, turns out to be no more than 25 miles or 30 miles from their base.
In almost as many instances applicants have inexcusably referred to journeys well outside their prescribed limit, and to the carriage of certain classes of goods unauthorized on their licences.
Operators should make every endeavour to keep their businesses as Ei.10 flexible as possible within their per
mated limits. Those, for example, with a 50-mile radius, should try to obtain business that will take them to the outer rim, in various directions, a reasonable number of times during the currency of the licence.
In the same way, an effort should be made to carry all those classes of goods permitted. Hauliers should be careful to keep a proper record of these journeys, to be used as evidence before the Licensing Authority. This requirement should not present much difficulty.
A-licence holders should, in addition, keep a record of work which entails expert or specialized knowledge in handling, and of any facility offered to their customers which proves their work to be different from, or better than, that which could be carried out by competitors. In their own interests, A-licensees should avoid limiting their operations to one or two firms, unless they be content to discuss a contract licence when they appear for renewal.
"Don't "—the Keynote of
Let us now turn to the activities of those responsible for the administration of the Act. There can be no doubt that they have tried to operate it as appears to them to be right. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that authority, the world over, is usually associated with the word "don't," and it is not surprising that the Licensing Authorities, given such a splendid vehicle for prohibitions, should have risen to the occasion.
Whilst some of the Authorities have shown a worthy desire to make it, in fact, an Act of co-ordination between road and rail, others have displayed inability to appreciate the principles of justice and fairplay. In no case has this fact been better illustrated than by the refusal, in certain quarters, to administer the Act in accordance with important legal decisions. There should be some central authority to bring the procedure of the various Traffic Courts into line, and ensure that their rillings do not clash with the law as elucidated in superior Courts. Another incontrovertible fact that has emerged from the working of the Act is that it is almost impossible to obtain impartial judgments when a powerful and well-represented group . is continuously opposed to a large number of separate and weak individuals. Approximately 50 per cent.. of the applicants are not represented by any advocate, good, bad or indifferent, and, in these circumstances, it appears to be inevitable that the Authority should be swayed by the lucid arguments of the objecting counsel, as opposed to the inarticulate and often irrelevant evidence of the applicant.
The repetition of this procedure, day after day, week after week, rnust" have a cumulative effect, and it is obvious that, however good their' original intentions, most of the Licensing Authorities have come to take the line of least resistance.
If they have tried to go beyond their powers in favour of the applicant, they have been politely but firmly pointed out the straight and narrow path by the railway representative, whereas, in most cases-, any error on the side of severity has passed unchallenged. It is small wonder, therefore, that the Act is, lit practice, gradually adjusting itself to a mould which has been shaped by the railways.
As by degrees these precedents have been established in the Traffic Courts, it is obvious that they have, in turn, flavoured the attitude of the Appeal Tribunal, which, with its almost constant membership, cannot avoid being guided, to a large extent, by the practices which it finds established in the lower court.
In Search of Justice.
It is only in those cases, such as that of Hill and Long, Ltd., where the dispute has teen taken right away from this atmosphere to minds untrammelled by involuntary or established prejudice, we can feel satisfied that the decision is as the law intended. In these circumstances, it is easy to appreciate the small operator's reluctance to embark on the inconvenience and expense of an appeal, with the result that many questionable decisions have remained unchallenged and have, in turn, passed on as established precedents.
Turning to another side of the picture, there can be little doubt that the railways have determined to take the fullest possible advantage of their position under the Act. Not only have they objected in every case where there has been the slightest chance of their opposition being sustained, but in their petty persecution of B-licence applicants on renewal, they have shown that they are prepared to give no quarter.
They have steadily improved their position as road operators by the addition of large numbers of vehicles to their fleets, and there appear to be good grounds for the belief that they will endeavour to absorb further competitive road interests.
Not the least disturbing feature of the licensing system is that a railway objection can prove to be a serious obstacle, although' it may be shown to be entirely irrelevant. In other words, the mere fact of railway opposition being lodged, however futile, subjects the _applicant to the hypothetical objections of other contractors.
III a case brought to my notice, the operator was opposed by three members of the railway group. The applicant's counsel pointed out that there was no objection from the railway company in the area into which the haulier operated, but the Licensing Authority decided to hear the other objectors on the usual grounds, namely, excess of traffic over requirements and so on.
The Authority has, of course. power to order a public hearing of any application for an A or B licence. where increased tonnage or amended conditions are sought. It is doubtful, however, whether serious applicatioes would, in the absence of objections, meet with any overwhelming official opposition. This class of objection strikes the average sensible person as being very akin to the reasons given by the wolf for deciding to eat the lamb.
Act Should be Amended.
In any case, it is a most undesirable and unjust practice, which cannot have been foreseen by those who drafted the Act. It appears necessary, in the interests of fair play, that the Act should be amended so that only those objectors who can make out a prima facie case on their own behalf shall be heard.
Lastly, we will consider the Act as it has affected manufacturers and their distributors or agents. That the manufacturers are not greatly concerned is evident from the small amount of interest which they have
taken in the affairs of the various: associations, It is possible that they were lulled into a sense of security by last year's figures of trade, which showed an increase of approximately 3 per cent. in the number of new goods-vehicle registrations. In view, however, of the acceleration in the withdrawal of horse-drawn Vehicles from the streets, and the last-minute rush to put discretionary -tonnage vehicles into operation at the beginning of 1984, one would not imagine that they could have found this figure very convincing.
What the ligures for this year will show remains to be seen, but the drop of approximately 8 per cent. iii the registrations of goods vehicles for October, compared with those in the same month of 1934, in spite of a continued improvement in trade and the increased activities of vehicle examiners, should provide food for some deep thinking.
The Ancillary User the Hope of the Manufacturer.
There is im doubt that many of the manufacturers have pinned their faith to the C-licence holder. They have been of the opinion that any undue restriction of the A-licence and B-licence operator would automatically lead to the acquisition of more -vehicles by the private carrier.
That there has been a steady increase in the registrations of vehicles of under 12 cwt, cannot. be denied. As, however, this has not served to increase the total, hut merely represents the substitution of sales units selling at approximately £150 for others in the region of 300 or over, it will not be aa factor calling for extreme jubilation.
The tendency towards fleet amalgamations and increased purchases by the railway group, with the inevitable result of mass purchases direct from the manufacturers, is a feature of the situation which the makers can at present ignore. The ultimate danger, however, of this drift was forcibly pointed out in these columns in a recent 'editorial on the situation in Northern Ireland.
Consideration of this feature leads us to the effect of the Act on those responsible for the distribution of new vehicles. The distributive and retail agents can view only with alarm any increase in the practice of direct sales, which will automatically be at the expense of their own sales to individual operators.
For this side of the industry it has been a disquieting year ; the absence of newcomers to the haulage business has had a marked and detrimental effect on the sale of secondhand vehicles. Prices, as a. consequence, have dropped, and many dealers have found themselves with unwelcome and inflated stocks.
Second-hand Sales Affected.
This alteration in the price level has made it more difficult to make part-exchange allowances to satisfy the customer and has increased the tendency to " hawk " the business, whilst the legal necessity of reconditioning before resale has placed the average vehicle over four years old in the " scrap " class.
The sale of new vehicles has been further complicated by the need for obtaining permission where an increase in weight is required, the publication of these requirements, in many cases, leading to unfair and cut-price competition on the part of distant traders. The consequent loss of after-sales service, owing to the inaccessibility of the suppliers, is a disadvantage which the operators have afterwards learnt to their cost.
The drop in the value of used commercial vehicles is a circumstance' which is not without its compensa tion to the motor agent. Owners will be persuaded to run their vehicles for longer, periods between replacements, with a consequent incredse in the amount that will be spent in the stores and the repair shop during the life of the machine.
Should this summary appear, in parts, to be unduly pessimistic, it should be appreciated that only by a true realization of the facts, as they are, can we hope to effect any improvement in a vast and formerly prosperous industry, which is slowly but surely being fettered by an obsolete and tyrannical competitor, assisted by an unjust and recklessly conceived Act of Parliament.