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23rd July 1971, Page 43
23rd July 1971
Page 43
Page 43, 23rd July 1971 — topi
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

AH things to all men by Janus

AFTER some turbulent passages descriptive of its chequered progress, the 1970 report of the National Freight Corporation reaches a more serene section in which it pays tribute to all and sundry, including "the Government". "Our relations with the Department of the Environment continued to be good," it says. The NFC would endeavour to maintain "and indeed improve" this satisfactory situation.

The opening chapter, however, points out that the change of Government during the year was bound to give rise to Uncertainty in an industry which had been for so long a "political shuttlecock". The NFC, or its predecessors under other names, had so often and for long periods "had to work under one Government to an Act framed by and to fit the policies of the preceding Government".

WITHOUT perhaps intending to do so, the report provides illustrations of the difficulties. It regrets that the change from carriers' to operators' licensing "has not been accompanied by the matching provisions regarding transport managers' licences". Almost simultaneously, the Minister for Transport Industries, Mr John Peyton, was telling the National Guild of Transport Managers that he had decided not to introduce the provisions because he did not feel that it would be the best way to ensure that the statutory requirements for the safe operation of goods vehicles are met.

Even more daring and perhaps untimely is the reminder in the report of one of the main duties of the NFC as it is set out in the Transport Act 1968: "To provide, or secure or promote the provision of, properly integrated services for the carriage of goods within Great Britain by road and rail; and to secure that, in the provision of those services, goods are carried by rail whenever such carriage is efficient and economic."

THIS form of words has a significant history. It first occurs in the Transport Act 1947, although under that legislation the system which the British Transport Commission had to provide was to be "efficient, adequate and economical" as well as properly integrated. By the time they returned to power six or seven years ago, the Labour Government had at least learned that, although integration might be achieved by Act of Parliament, efficiency, adequacy and economy were horses of a different colour.

Under the Conservative Transport Act 1953, the chastened BTC was merely told to provide railway services and other transport services. If the present Government introduces transport legislation, it might well revert to the 1953 wording. The NFC report should perhaps have been more discreet in its choice of quotations.

There is nothing in the report to suggest that the NFC is moving towards the kind of integration which would curb its freedom and impair its efficiency. It refers to the good relationship with the railways and the efforts made to promote it still further'. There is also a hint of "joint ventures" in which customers and independent hauliers might co-operate. Closer partnership between the providers and also the users of transport has been a tendency in recent years and it is upon this' that the NFC hopes to build.

Hauliers and traders are likely to welcome the suggestion. Although the report does not give the details, it may be assumed that the NFC would not insist on always being the leader or the predominant partner. It would look carefully at any proposal for co-operation which promised increased efficiency in exchange for mere cut-throat competition.

IT would be an exaggeration to say that the report represents a dramatic change in NFC direction of policy. But a change of emphasis may be detected. The NFC seeks more than ever to be a haulier among hauliers and to operate on a strictly commercial basis. There is a determination to dispense as soon as possible with the Government grant earmarked to cover the losses sustained by National Carriers Ltd in its first five years, Wisely, the report makes no reference to rumours that some of the NFC activities may be hived off' by Government decree. Without doubt the NFC would object to any action along these lines. On the other hand, it might very well decide of its own accord to dispose of parts of its undertaking which were not giving a satisfactory return, in the same way as it would not hesitate to acquire undertakings that it could put to good use.

IN various ways the hand may be detected in the report of the new chairman of the NFC, Mr Dan Pettit. There may before long be other changes at the top. The deputy chairman, Mr G. W. Quick Smith, has now retired, and the term of office of the remaining NFC members will soon be up. It will be a useful pointer to the future to see how many are re-appointed or who take their place.

The style of the report differs from that of most of its predecessors. Each of them has to a certain extent sustained the same mood throughout. whether it be statesmanlike, elegiac or bubbling with optimism. The 1970 report is all things to all men. Its moods change from chapter to chapter.

rthe very first page there begins a catalogue of the major obstacles encountered during the year. The economy was sluggish and in some sectors static. The constant rise in costs was "unique to the road transport industry" and was not readily associated with compensating opportunities to raise productivity. There was inevitable pressure on haulage rates—and a more extended treatment of the subject is threatened in a later chapter. There were political changes.

This, then, says the report, "is the background against which the modest but solid achievements of the NFC in 1970 must be viewed". To many readers it must also seem the foreground. From the accounts of the various companies and groups there emerged other causes for complaint. There were labour disputes which eroded profits. There was new competition as a result of the licensing freedom for lighter vehicles. Even the destruction of the Menai Bridge was brought into the picture.

SOME space is given to the growing hostility of a section of the public towards the heavy lorry. More needs to be done, says the report, to inform the public on the degree to which we all depend on the lorry for the sheer necessities of life. There is regret at official reluctance to increase the maximum permitted weights—the report calls it "a potent productivity consideration". On this point also there is criticism of the "failure on the part of the transport industry to educate public opinion".

. There is no suggestion that the NFC will take the lead in a campaign to improve the situation, as it is promising to do on a number of other matters. It describes itself in the report as a "pacemaker," which "must strive constantly to be in the lead".

HERE at last, after so many complaints about the problems of the Past, the report takes a confident look into the future. Physical and total distribution it describes as "the last frontier of cost challenge". In most businesses, it claims in the same rather mysterious language, it is in transport, warehousing and distribution expenditure that "the cost legacies of everyone else's business decisions and judgments are finally located". If that does not frighten thousands of hapless traders into the welcoming arms of the NFC, nothing else will. But they should be warned that the NFC "has no intention of subsidizing customers by charging less than a fair rate". It must make a reasonable profit, "since it has no divine right which will ensure survival".

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