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NOSTALGIA, a feeling for the whimsical, irritation that months after the general election so little is happening on the political scene—these and other factors may have prompted Aims of Industry, in a list of 21 suggestions to the Government, to question the need for State ownership of any section of the road transport industry.
Is it necessary, it is asked, for the State to operate lorries for hire, when there is no lack of privately owned transport? Why cannot free enterprise take over container traffic? The pamphlet in which Aims of Industry sets out its proposals then takes a different turn. If State transport cannot make parcels traffic pay, it says, let somebody else do the job if he wants to take the risk. If the railways cannot make a branch line pay, free enterprise should be more readily allowed to see whether it can.
Something is wrong with the argument. It contrives to put nationalized transport in the wrong whatever happens. It is for the chopping-block both if it competes satisfactorily with independent operators and if instead it makes a loss. There is no recognition of the difficulty which such a policy would cause for any Government. To dispose painfully of an asset that is making a profit is to pile up trouble for oneself. If there is no profit, it is likely to be a waste of time even to test the market.
LITTLE support can be expected from any quarter, including Government supporters. Trade and industry have no wish to see the dissolution of the National Freight Corporation. None of the 16 points which the Freight Transport Association has put forward for discussion with the Minister of Transport gives even the merest hint of denationalization. On the contrary, there is actually the benign request that "the physical and financial structUre created by the Transport Act 1968 for British Railways and the NFC should be given every chance to prove itself'.
Significantly, the Aims of Industry pamphlet says nothing about the railways as a whole and completely ignores the National Bus Company. The transport industry, however, cannot be properly reviewed except as a whole. For the railways and probably also for the State-owned passenger vehicle operators there can be no return to the pre-war situation.
HAULIERS have accepted this verdict over a wider field. They no longer talk of renewing the conflict which ended in 1956 with the decision of the Conservative Government of the time that the disposal of British Road Services' assets had gone far enough. For the most part they accept the NFC as a stable and beneficial influence. Even the inveterate opponents, if they were honest, would admit that they would hate to see it go for fear of what might come after.
All the same, Aims of Industry has performed a useful service in raising a subject that was in danger of becoming taboo. The relationship between the two road haulage sectors is a delicate one and it is continually changing. For a rather bizarre example, if the NFC wished an objection to be lodged to an application for an operator's licence, apparently its only course would be to persuade the RI-IA to act, This is a reversal of the situation not long ago in which the railways with BRS were playing the chief part in the objection procedure.
The intrusion of State ownership into road haulage brought many problems with it. Most of them have disappeared with the gradual removal of privileges from the State-owned side and with the growth of personal and business ties. It is a good test of their permanence if the old bitterness can be recalled without being revived.
THERE are other points at which Government interference, however well intentioned, may be much more damaging. In the opinion of many hauliers, the working out of the Industrial Training Act 1964 provides a good example. The latest report of the Road Transport Industry Training Board, for the year ended March 31 1970, will not go far to reassure them.
No hint is given in the report of the discontent which has been bubbling up, not only among hauliers but in almost every section of the industry that the Board covers. There is even a suggestion that its scope should be greatly extended, ostensibly in the interests of hauliers.
On a number of occasions concern has been expressed within the Board, says the report. that so many commercial vehicle operators are outside its clutches. The movement of trained drivers and driving instructors from road haulage to "employers within the scope of other Boards who operate large commercial vehicle fleets" may create a situation, the report goes on, "where professional haulage firms will be bearing the major burden and cost of training commercial vehicle drivers for the whole of British industry".
For this odd state of affairs no remedy is proposed. It is hard to see what can be done. Arrangements for the interchange of training and for cross-subsidization between training boards would create an almost intolerable confusion. On the other hand, the RTITB may feel it could cope with the complications with the help of the computer whose purchase was so proudly announced in the previous report.
CERTAINLY, the computer has been hard at work shuffling the figures around. The latest report runs to 86 pages as against the previous 32 (and incidentally costs lOs compared with 3s 6d). Almost all the extra space is occupied by tables showing what seems like every possible permutation and combination of the number of firms, the number of employees, their distribution, the type of employment, the size of' the firms, the time spent in training and so on.
It is well towards the end that hauliers will find the table which, ungratefully perhaps, is likely to interest them most. It shows that in the year 1968/69 (when the 'levy was 0.9 per cent) and the year 1969-70 (with the levy at its present variable level) they paid nearly £7,1-m. In the period from August 1968 to December 1969—no doubt the computer can best explain these mysterious intervals—they received in grants a total of less than i4fm.
FOR motor vehicle distribution and repair the comparable figures were £8,180,000 levy and over £134m in grants; and for passenger transport £7,640,000 levy and over £8m in grants. In spite of the statistics there is no sign that these two sections of the industry are any more pleased than the hauliers with the work of the RTITB.
For some time hauliers have complained that through the inequitable levy-grant system they are subsidizing garages that may chiefly or entirely be providing services for firms outside the RTITB scope. When in reply the RTITB mourns the further leakage of skilled men into the own-account field, hauliers are unlikely to be appeased. They will doubt still further whether it was a good idea to set up the RTITB in the first place.
DOUBTS are being expressed in other quarters about the virtues of Government-controlled industrial training in general. In road haulage there has certainly been a stimulus towards getting and receiving instruction. Pressure from other recent legislation might have had the same effect unaided; and more remote Government advice in the setting up of a voluntary organization might have avoided some of the unnecessary expenditure that operators suspect the RTITB of incurring.
What seems a gross example of such expenditure is another RTITB document, with the one-word title "Progress". With not particularly helpful pictures and diagrams in several colours it spreads extremely thin a meagre supply of information that could easily have been accommodated on a leaflet. To many operators this will seem wilful extravagance.