Damian Green – 2004 Speech on British Hauliers

Below is the text of the speech made by Damian Green to the Road Haulage Association’s Spring Conference in Portugal on 21 May 2004.

“I was struck in my early weeks in this job that, for politicians, too often transport consists entirely of the railways, when rail provides only 6% of the journeys taken, and for most people road transport is much more important in their lives. All politicians are obsessed by polls, and it is instructive that MORI, in their regular polls about public attitudes to the parties in relation to the big permanent political issues, only ask about the parties’ policies towards public transport—no mention of roads and motoring. So I want to take a balanced and unemotional approach to transport planning.

Having said which, of course rail and bus policies are vital. If we don’t get the railways right, for freight as well as passengers, then increasing numbers of people will take to their cars, or their trucks, in despair, adding to the congestion we all suffer from. John Prescott notoriously said “I will have failed if in five years time there are not fewer journeys by car.” Well traffic is up 7%, and motorway congestion is up 250%. So you can’t make our roads more effective without making the railways more effective as well.

So with that as the background I want to set out three principles which will act the basis for our policies.

First, Governments should give people genuine choice about the mode of transport they choose.

Secondly, Long-term transport success will come from steady and predictable investment policies, sheltered from incessant political interference.

Thirdly, The necessary investment levels will require private sector money, and this is as important for roads as it is for railways.

Those are our guiding principles. What do they mean in policy terms? Indeed, what do they mean for your industry and its reliance on the road network. My basic pitch is that the Government should call off its war on the motorist—not least because making driving miserable for private motorists also inevitably means making it miserable for commercial motorists—including all of your drivers.

We have already made some proposals, including an audit of the positioning of speed cameras to make it clear that every one is contributing to road safety and not just acting as a silent tax collector for the Chancellor. We believe speed limits should be revisited, with higher maximum speeds possible on motorways and lower speeds necessary on some other roads.

All of these ideas are designed to make our roads flow more freely, so that no one is holding up your trucks unnecessarily, and that your trucks are not holding up other drivers unnecessarily.

Our second principle, recommending steady investment, is designed to avoid the stop-start nature of big transport investment in Britain. You will all have seen the full page adverts in papers this week arguing for more and better transport investment—the RHA was one of the bodies placing them. They laid particular emphasis on the most serious pinch points: the M1, the M4 near London, the M6 north of Birmingham, the M62 and the M25. And it is very often schemes to relieve these bottlenecks that take an age to come to fruition. There will always be planning issues, and genuine environmental issues, which cause delays. But what is most frustrating is that such schemes are often delayed further after we have gone through all the planning delays, because the Government finances of the day don’t permit large-scale blocks of extra expenditure. It applies on the roads, it’s applying to the Crossrail Scheme in London at the moment.

This is where our third principle comes in; that if we are to have a steady, well-planned flow of big transport projects, we will need to use private money more than in the past. The details of this are being worked on at the moment, and we will be coming out with announcements later this year, but I am absolutely convinced that unless we change our attitude towards the use of the private sector in building, operating and maintaining roads, we will keep suffering the same problems.

For more than 50 years, under every type of Government and through good economic times and bad, our road system has been inadequate. There is no sign that this is changing. The last progress report on the Government’s Ten Year Plan said that although we were promised less congestion when it was launched in 2000, supply chains will have to cope with growing congestion and unreliability. So even under a government that is committed to taxing and spending, the current system shows no sign of improvement. The figures are depressing. The Ten-Year Plan promised a 5% reduction in inter urban congestion, and an 8% reduction in large urban areas. The result has been a predicted increase in journey times of 30% by 2010.

The solution won’t be a single magic bullet. We will need to use our roads, especially in urban areas, more intelligently—using some of the methods I spoke about earlier. We will need more by-passes. We will need more dualling, and possibly more motorway routes. To fund these new roads, we will need more private finance.

So we need a complete change in the way we deal with transport policy. It is obvious that the life-cycle of any particular big transport project is very likely to be longer than one particular Parliament, or of one particular Party’s period in power. We need to be grown up about this. In particular we need to set up funding systems so that the temptation for new Governments or new Ministers to drop existing ideas in favour of their own pet projects is minimised.

So those are the principles. Let me turn now to the specific issue of fuel prices. No one expects the British Government to be in complete control of the oil price. But what the British Government can control is the level of fuel taxes. The Conservative Party voted against Gordon Brown’s increase of 1.9p a litre which he is due to bring in this September. At Prime Minister’s questions this week, shortly before we were all interrupted by noises off and powder on, Michael Howard asked the Prime Minister whether he would reverse this increase. There was a good deal of bluster but no answer. So we have to wait and see what the Government will do. But let me put on the record once and for all that we think this extra imposition should not happen.

On over-regulation Europe, and specifically the Working Time Directive, I am conscious that later this morning you will be hearing from Philip Bushill-Matthews, my colleague from the European Parliament, and I don’t want to tread too hard on his territory. Apart from anything else, it is bad enough to have to cope with European Directives without having to listen to two different speeches about them in the course of one morning.

So I will simply set out the main lines of our proposals. We want to get rid of at least a quarter of all existing EU regulations and directives and introduce sunset clauses for new ones. And by this we mean 25% of the total number of regulations and directives, not just a quarter of the pages in the current Acquis, which is the limit of the Commission’s ambition.

Now you will have heard politicians talk about the desirability of deregulation before. And it’s just possible you may be a little cynical. It’s even possible that I would not blame you for being cynical. You need to know how we would do it. So here goes. There are five points.

· We want a designated Commissioner with explicit responsibility for meeting deregulation targets.

· We will use the confirmation hearings for new Commissioners this autumn to test their individual commitments to the deregulation agenda

· We will use the European Parliament better for the deregulation agenda by initiating pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation, and the impact on competitiveness made explicit in every proposal.

· We would introduce the right of repeal of legislation to the European Parliament, which would mean the Commission would lose its exclusive right to delete existing laws.

· We would allow national parliaments to block proposed legislation if the thought it infringed the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

So these are practical measures which my colleagues in the European Parliament will pursue, and the more of them we elect on June 10th the more likely they are to be effective.

Moving on to one of the worst accusations against British Governments, Are they guilty of gold plating European Regulations? Yes they are. Gold plating is a very difficult concept to pin down, but it often means simply making a regulation more detailed and prescriptive in English law than it was when it left Brussels. One way of measuring this is the simple number of words used to transpose a directive into the country’s own legal document. On this basis, the UK adds a staggering two and third times as many words to the average regulation as it had in the original. This is much more than France, and overwhelmingly more than Portugal and Germany, the three countries where these comparisons have been made.

Changing this requires a change in the culture of Whitehall, which will only come about from a Government committed to deregulation as a central part of its economic thinking. The next Conservative Government will do that.

Moving briefly onto the Working Time Directive, our desired outcome when we were considering it was the minimum amount of regulation compatible with safety and reasonable comfort. I urged the Government to lobby for extending the reference period over which average working time is calculated. I agreed that a 17-week reference period would be too short, and would damage businesses that have a seasonal focus.

There has been much progress in the past few weeks. The six-month reference period for calculating the average week is an improvement. So is the definition of night time working. But I still think the omission of a definition of periods of availability is worrying. I hope it simply means that the Department is trying its best to find a definition that will be most helpful to those trying to run a business in difficult circumstances. I know there is a strong case for saying that driving time should be the key measure, and I would be interested to hear your views on this.

As a final specific point I should address the vexed subject of Road User Charging for lorries. It is good to know, looking at the Austrian example, that this kind of system can be made to work technically, especially when you look over the border at Germany and their problems. And certainly the current situation when British hauliers are put at a competitive disadvantage to other European companies by our own Government because of our fuel duties is neither sensible nor sustainable.

But the Chancellor’s latest delay in implementation means that the original idea, that UK hauliers deserved a more level playing field, has been forgotten until 2008 at the earliest. I know that many of you believe that the level playing field argument was always a convenient front for introducing technology that would lead to all-out road pricing. That may be true.

What is beyond argument is that we should be looking for other ways of levelling the playing field between now and 2008, if it can be done in a revenue-neutral way. I have been investigating thoughts of charging lorries that come into Britain on the basis of the mileage used when they are using our roads. So far, all the schemes I have looked at would be effective, but would also be illegal under competition law. So I am still searching. I am sure that many of you will be able to help me in this quest, and I am very receptive. UK hauliers deserve a better deal than the one they currently get from the Government, and I want to work with you all to make sure they receive it.

One last observation on the Ten Year Plan as a whole. It was, frankly, over-hyped as a solution to our transport problems. The slow progress of the Multi-Modal studies has meant that the implementation of specific road improvements has remained a weak area in the plan. Congestion charging seems to create at least as many problems as it solves. Rail planning is back in the melting pot. Tax incentives for cleaner vehicles are offered with one hand and taken away with the other.

So the degree of certainty that many people in your industry hoped for when the Plan was unveiled has not happened. There is an alternative vision, where politicians step back from the detail of industrial planning and set the framework for companies and individuals to make their own decisions. That is the vision that I and my colleagues are developing, and I am sure that it can contribute to the long-term health of our the road haulage industry—an industry which itself is absolutely essential to the long-term health of our economy.