It’s almost a cliché to say that transport ministers are the Cinderellas of the British government. The job is usually either a step up the ladder for those heading for the top, or a brief safety net on the way down to the back benches. Either way, most incumbents don’t bother to get too embroiled in the technicalities of transport policy.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that Alistair Darling had at least some understanding of the business when I interviewed him shortly after he became transport secretary some years ago. And that makes it all the more disappointing that he seems to have forgotten all those concerns now that he has reached the lofty position of Chancellor.
Darling has just pushed through a rise in diesel tax despite pleas from industry and the fact that the price of fuel has been increasing. Clearly operators are going to have a tough Autumn trying to recoup these rises from customers.
While Darling has been busily gouging more money out of the industry, the Department for Transport has been looking at the problems created by the increasing number of low-taxed and poorly regulated foreign lorries on UK roads and, frustratingly, coming to no very serious conclusion.
There has been growing concern that although foreign vehicles represent only four per cent of lorries on UK roads they are actually involved in over 12 per cent of the accidents. In fact, the Freight Transport Association has calculated that the annual cost of casualty accidents linked to foreign lorries is £100 million.
Nevertheless, a report from the government’s Freight Data Feasibility Study last month concluded that none of the four options it has been examining “appear to offer high value for money”. It calculates high value as benefits equalling twice the cost. Tell that to a motorist who has just been sideswiped by an East European lorry with dodgy brakes.
The logistics industry has a remarkably good record for safety – and it takes just one bad accident caused by a badly maintained foreign lorry to do the whole industry a huge amount of damage.
FTA chief Theo de Pencier makes the point: “There can be no doubt that the provision of more and better information as foreign lorries enter the UK would substantially aid our enforcement authorities and help to reduce these poor figures.”
The government’s feasibility study still has some way to go before it is complete. It should remember that theoretical statistics mean nothing to voters but tabloid stories of runaway juggernauts hurt everyone.
Malory Davies FCILT, Editor