Users Demand Closer Consultation
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By Aucourant who speaks for trade and industry
A Unified Road Haulage System Under Some Public Supervision, with Private Capital Replacing the aT.C.'s Majority Holdings, Suggested as an Alternative to the Government's Plans
IN so far as the rnain•-purpose of they Transport Bill . is to providefor ".the disposal of the British Transport Commission's road 'haulage property, arid for a levy en certain goods -vehicles and tractors used on roads," it cannot' be said that the Government has yet paid any _serious 'regard to the -interests of transport users in framing. amendments. to. the Transport Act, 1947.. To ignore' the, interests* of those whom road transport is intended to serve and, indeed, the interests of..those who must inevitably pay the cost of such ill timed experiments, is to court 'economic. and political
disaster. . ' ; .., .
Whether it be through the difficulties to be encountered during the transition period, the im4pOst on hattliiffs in the form of a levy, the inconveniences likely to-accrue . from the planned instability of a road transport industry unsure of its future, or in the further chaos that-. would surely be, created in the event of re-nationalization; the user will be dalled, upon to pay the price. His right to consultation is, therefore, without question, but in both principle and in detail his interests are, in the main, ignored in the Bill now presented to Parliament.
B.T.C.'s Obligations In legislating for the break-up of British Road Services the Government contemplates placing a responsibility upon the Commission which it cannot hope to discharge, and will remain unfulfilled to the detriment of road transport users. Under Clause 1 of the Bill the Commission is to be charged with the speedy disposal (and dispersal) of road haulage assets while, at the same time, avoiding disturbance of the national transport system.
B.R.S. built up its organization on the basis of a unified road haulage system and service. After a prolonged period of costly experiment the user has at last begun to derive 'some benefit from this integrated national network of road haulage services, and industry has ce'rtainly paid a high . price for its achievement. Whatever safeguards, other than fairly rigid control, might be inserted in the Bill, there can be no guarantee that a "transport unit," once separated from B.R.S., could or would provide the service it performed as an integral part of a unified system. Nor May it be profitable for it to do so in the face of the insecurity which private road haulage must face, and the enforced necessity of regaining as much as is possible of a capital outlay which would stand in jeopardy in the event of a change of Government. Similar difficulties were, of course, experienced immediately before and after nationalization—they are the inevitable consequences of such radical changes.
As firm believers in the superior merits of private enterprise, industry and commerce might have been prepared to face these difficulties in view of the long
BIG term .benefits of privately operated road haulage. In the event, the absence of any stability in the future of free-enterprise road haulage imbues the users of transport with a greater caution—and, let it be said, a finer sense of reensibility—than those who would allow political .expediency to triumph over national interests.
Most of _the more convincing arguments used in favour of nationalized road transport were centred on the need for an integrated and unified service which could the better be co-ordinated with the railways. The question of public or private ownership was surely coincidental to this more basic and reasonable contention. •
With this fact in mind, the Government would have been' well advised to seek a via media that would have aimed at conibining the merits of management under private enterprise with the undeniable advantages of unification under clearly defined public supervision. The acceptance of such a principle would still he possibije by modifying considerably those clauses of the Bill dealing with the dispersal of the road haulage system. By preserving a unified road haulage system under a measure of public supervision, and permitting the introduction of private capital to replace the larger part of the Comniission's holdings in it, the Government would have acted in the best interests of the user—and, therefore, the community. Most certainly it would have provided a resounding answer to the purely political controversialists.
The crippling limitation (Mr. Churchill's italics) of .a 25-mile limit on existing private hauliers is to be removed—ultimately (my italics). It is to be removed only after the transport units sold by the Commission have been able to gain the initiative in long-distance transport. This at least appears to be the reason for the delay in removing the mileage restriction.
Advantage to .Buyers
If the "trading rights" are to be acquired with the purchase of a transport unit, surely the new owner of that unit already has the initiative -in a field which, in the main, has for long been prohibited to the existing private haulier. In most instances, however, the existing private operator has not the vehicles with which to engage to any appreciable extent in long-distance traffic, nor is he likely to obtain them in present economic and licensing circumstances. Of a total of 42,878 A-licence vehicles owned by private operators at the beginning of 1951, only approximately 8,575 exceeded 3 tons unladen, and of 13,359 Contract A vehicles under licence, only 3,339 exceeded 3 tons unladen.
Given a unified B.R.S. predominantly owned and managed by private enterprise under public supervision, the existing private operator, free from mileage restrictions and subjected to the added safeguard of the' Licensing Authorities' control over new licences, would provide that element of competition which is needed to ensure a cheaper and more efficient road transport service for the nation: Whatever sum: may be extracted from hauliers to pay for losses incurred on the resale of road transport units and to subsidize the railways, the cost must ultimately be reflected in the charges which the user must pay for the carriage of his merchandise. -He is not convinced that such a levy is necessary, first because he sees no sense, in present political circumstances, in breaking up the unified system of B.R.S. and, secondly, because he feels that the struggle between rail and road for larger slices of the haulage cake is a matter to be settled mainly between the two competing systems. The purely political and theoretical controversies which rage around those two issues are, in the user's view, remote from the real needs of the day.
Loss to the Country The substantial loss expected in the dissipation of the goodwill purchased by the Commission is avoidable, and it is a luxury which the economy of the country cannot afford. So long as the unified road haulage system is maintained, regardless of its ownership, the goodwill purchased by the Commission remains practically unimpaired; it becomes dissipated only when the system is itself disrupted and loses its identity. This factor was surely recognized by the Government in its White Paper when drawing such a fine distinction between "goodwill," which it claimed no longer existed, and the "trading rights," which it insisted remained.
A need for compensating the railways for loss of traffic to road—at the user's expense—would not arise if the Commission were entitled to maintain a statutorarily limited financial interest in road haulage, at a level probably in excess of that which is contemplated in the Bill.
Neither British Railways, which must bear this statutory stigma of ineffectiveness, nor the Transport Tribunal, which would perforce have to grapple with the interminable complications in deciding the extent and level of the subsidy, can be expected to welcome this measure. This, taken together with the opposition encountered from the providers and users of road transport, is surely sufficiently wise counsel to cause the Government to expunge those parts of the Bill which relate to the imposition of a transport levy and the creation of a Transport Fund which could, as history shows, be oPen to grave misuse in future years. In any event; the concept of a transport levy does not begin to grapple with the fundamental ailments of the national rail transport system, nor does it contribute to the balancing of road and rail competition.
Drafted in Haste Just as the major principles of the Bill reflect an absence of fundamental thought on national transport policy, so does the detail reveal a piece of legislation drafted in haste and without adequate consultation with those primarily concerned with the use of transport services.
Having burdened the Transport Tribunal (acting as a consultative committee) with the almost impossible task of estimating the level of an undignified subsidy to be paid to the Commission, no direction is given to members of the Tribunal to hear evidence other than that submitted by the Commission. As provided for in the Bill, most of the evidence likely to be adduced in support of the claim for subsidy would be concerned with the actions of users; worse still, with an interpretation of the users' actions which may or may not be reasonably accurate. Traders' interests in this matter are such that they justify some consideration, and as their traffic will be the subject of discussion, they should have the right to contest the evidence brought forward by the Commission. Similarly, road haulage operatots should have the same rights.
The reorganization of railways could not expect to feature prominently and in any detail in the Bill; -it is, indeed, confined to only two relatively brief clauses. By definition, the measures necessary to improve the structure, administration and operation of British Railways do not require legislation. It would, however, have given more promise for the future if these clauses of the Bill had pointed the way to a more fundamental and realistic approach to railway problems.
By legislating for greater flexibility in railway charges schemes, the Government saves itself from what might have been an almost completely negative and purposeless piece of legislation, but even the framing of this part of the Bill reveals hasty action and insufficient thought. The duties of the Commission as regards interim variations in charges, and the rights of the user before the Transport Tribunal, must be more clearly and emphatically defined.
Protection for Users In permitting the Commission to increase its statutory maxima of charges up to a level of 10 per cent, as an interim measure, it must be clearly understood that some instrument requiring the ultimate approval of the Tribunal should be deposited with that body immediately. It must further be made clear that within a reasonable period, users will have the right, to lodge objections against the interim increase which has been imposed. The use of such terms as "as soon as may be and the indefinite and timid illusion to eventual modifications of charges schemes are not good enough. Without delay the Government should initiate wide discussions on this question with all users of transport, for the strengthening of this clause holds out hopes for the solution of a problem which has for long vexed both traders and providers of rail transport. Providers of both road haulage and road passenger transport will doubtless welcome the redressing of a grave injustice whereby the Commission's vehicles are now to be subjected to the same licensing provisions as those owned by private operators. Similarly, the user of road haulage services will welcome the modification of Section 6 of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933. which provides for a greater emphasis being given to the interests of the general public in determining the issue of licences. This does bring that section of the Act more into line with the contemporary transport setting.
Now that there is to be a longer interval between the first and second readings of the Bill in Parliament, it is to be hoped that the Government will employ the time at its disposal in closer consultation with the users of transport. If the public interest is given primary consideration, the Bill, as it now stands, should not reach the Statute Book. The Government is probably big enough and wise enough to have further thoughts on its transport policy, but if it should not heed the extensive and valuable advice that it has been' given, it must be prepared to face the united opposition and outright condemnation of the general public and users of transport, in addition to its political opponents in Parliament.