The 25-Mile Limit
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QUEER situations are likely to arise if the Government carries out •to the letter the policy laid down in the recent White Paper on transport. The authors—for the work of more than one hand may easily be detected in the document—have evidently
made a determined effort to please as many people as possible. They have succeeded in pleasing nobody completely, and have on some points gratuitously created problems they will find difficulty in solving without some change in their declared policy.
Most of the people anxious for a revision of the Transport Act have stressed that one of the first steps ought to be the abolition of the 25-mile limit. Hauliers have been particularly insistent on this point. The White Paper suggests leaving the 25-mile limit and the permit system in force for an indefinite period, during which the Road Haulage Executive will be parcelled up and sold and the lucky purchasers will be given unrestricted A licences.
It is easy to understand why this preferential treatment has been offered to the returned exiles and the immigrants. The Government wants to give them every encouragement and the Treasury wants the highest price. A business which starts as a virtual monopoly seems a more attractive proposition and may fetch more in the open market than one which is 'exposed from the very beginning to the competition of established operators.
It is easy also to understand the indignation of the hauliers. They will be kept within the 25-mile limit while the invaders establish themselves, and they will be forced to contribute towards the levy which, from this aspect, appears to be. designed so that the new comers may avoid paying for the goodwill which they will then have an uninterrupted opportunity of building up.
Nobody Qualified Even at this early stage, the Government is beginning to appreciate some of the difficulties. Once the amending Act takes effect, there will be no individuals or organizations qualified to handle the permit procedure. At present the R.H.E. has complete control over the issue of permits. Its general policy has been to grant them only for traffic it is unable to carry on its own vehicles. 'The R.H.E. will have no interest in the activities of units when they have been denationalized. It will have no criterion by which to judge whether or not a permit should be issued to a haulier likely to compete with obe of 'those units.
Nor would it be fair to expect the R.H.E.. once the process of liquidation has started, to keep in being the permit machinery which has helped to make it unpopular and which has not been relished by many of the officials forced to operate it. There is even less reason to expect that the right to issue permits should descend from the R.H.E. to its purchasers. No haulier would tolerate having to apply for his permit to another free-enterprise operator who had only just entered the industry as a result of buying a section of the nationalized undertaking. He would feel "like Caliban showing visitors the wonders of his isle in order that they may deprive him of it.
According to Lord Swinton, during the interim period before the abolition of the 25-mile limit permits are to be issued by an independent authority. This arrangement, Lord Swinton added, is much preferred to the arrangement under the Transport Act whereby the R.H.E., in granting or withholding permits, is the sole judge of its own case.
But the new situation will be entirely different. An independent authority would have been admirable for settling permit disputes between the R.H.E. monopoly and individual hauliers. He would find immense difficulty in reaching proper decisions when the R.H.E. is replaced by a large number of undertakings. The only fair method by which he could find out whether some favoured new haulier could handle the traffic for which a permit was desired by another haulier would be to imitate the licensing procedure, hold public inquiries and hear objections. Great pains would have to be taken, often over comparatively trivial cases, and the authority would be altogether incapable of dealing with requests for job permits, which are usually required at short notice.
Exaggerated Fear As t have said more than once in the past, the fear of what will happen when the 25-mile limit is revoked has been grossly, exaggerated. The successive stages by which the R.H.E. has skimmed off the long-distance element of the industry has left a residue of operators who in normal times would be interested in only a small amount of traffic outside the free zone or beyond the limits or their permits.
Lord Leathers, it is true, has been told " from inside" that " if we had uplifted the 25-mile limit to 35 miles or 40 miles, that would have ruined the R.H.E." find it hard to believe that the Ivory Tower is quite so fragile a structure, less still that its successors will be greatly hurt if their competitors already in the industry start level with them.
In practice, the retention of the 25-mile limit may have little more than a nuisance value. The Government cannot meddle with the original or substituted permits held at present. Nor presumably will it allow the independent authority to take away any ordinary permit in possession at the time of the general election or granted subsequently. There is a strong case for saying that any operator who has kept his fleet unsullied from the hands of the nationalizer deserves at least the equivalent of his first original permit, if not of his original application. It is likely also that job permits would be granted fairly liberally.
Once these concessions have been made there seems little point in having a mileage limit at all. Trade and industry require the untrammelled services of free enterprise road haulage at the earliest possible moment. If there must be a time-lag before the 25-mile limit is abolished, it should not last beyond the date when the assets of the R.H.E. have been sold.
My advice to hauliers is to begin at once applying for ordinary permits to cover any traffic they think likely to come their way. If the permits be refused the operators should make a further application, protest to their M.P.s, write to the papers and get their customers to do the same. In the end the Government may realize from practical experience what a nuisance the 25-mile limit is and how great would be the advantage of its abolition.