Transport Secretary applies for £50 million lorry parks upgrade to tempt HGV drivers back

Transport Secretary applies for £50 million lorry parks upgrade to tempt HGV drivers back

Too little, too late?

THE TRANSPORT Secretary Grant Shapps has applied for £50 million in funding from the Treasury to upgrade lorry parks, in an attempt to lure more HGV drivers back into the profession.

The money would be spent on increasing the parking capacity in Britain’s service stations by around 2,000 spaces and improving facilities such as showers, lavatories and cafés.

Facilities in the UK are generally considered to be worse than in Europe, something which, according to the government, deters people from choosing lorry-driving in the UK as a career option.

The UK is currently experiencing a shortage of between 30,000 and 100,000 lorry drivers, depending on the source of the data, which has primarily been blamed on Brexit, changes in online shopping habits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and changes to the IR35 off-payroll working rules that allowed drivers to decide whether they wanted to be employees or independent contractors.

HGV being driven through London

Sources within the industry say that a big part of the problem is also poor wages and working conditions that often see drivers away from home for long periods and forced to contend with inadequate roadside facilities.

A survey by the Road Haulage Association (RHA) looking at what drivers believe to be the main cause of the current shortage indicates that the majority of drivers feel that other drivers retiring is the primary reason for the crisis.

According to the RHA, out of the 600,000 registered hauliers in Britain, half have left the industry — between 16,000 and 20,000 having left and returned to their home countries due to the combination of Brexit and changes to IR35 rules.

The government hopes that the improvement of facilities will help address some of the issues that the industry claims are behind the shortages, and which deter younger people and women from applying for an HGV licence.

“It’s not just about wages: they are treated terribly,” one senior government source said. “People see them as a nuisance on the road, they aren’t welcomed when they get to their destination, they have to constantly watch the clock and once it’s time to stop they find there’s no decent facilities, so they keep in their cab by the side of the road. If we can change that we could attract lots more people to the job.”

Those aiming to become HGV drivers face high barriers to entry in an industry already forced to contend with the backlog caused by the cancellation of some 40,000 driver tests during the pandemic. It costs about £5,000 and takes six to nine months to qualify, assuming drivers already have a basic vehicle licence.

Only 56% of learners pass their test the first time, meaning that of the estimated 3,000 HGV driving tests now being carried out each week, only 1,500 new drivers are entering the market.

Thus far, the government’s attempts to alleviate the crisis have been unsuccessful. Although reluctant to alter the rules surrounding workers’ visas, the government recently caved in under pressure from industry and the ongoing fuel crisis to announce the availability of 5,000 temporary visas for HGV drivers, including 300 for tanker drivers.

The visas, aimed at “saving Christmas” will be valid until Christmas Eve and were derided by the RHA as “barely scratching the surface” and likened by the British Chamber of Commerce to “throwing a thimble of water onto a bonfire”.

So far only around 127 tanker drivers have taken up the visa offer, calling into question the government’s plan to find another 4,700 drivers during the busiest time of the year for retail businesses.

According to the RHA’s director of policy, Rod McKenzie: “People don’t want to come unless it is a really attractive alternative. You don’t give up a well-paid job for a better-paid job if it will only last a few months.”

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, said at the Conservative Party conference last week that his government did not want to use “the same old lever of uncontrolled immigration” to solve the labour shortage.

Other efforts to ease the wider haulier shortage have included the extension of truck drivers’ ADR licences, the licence that allows a driver to transport dangerous goods — like fuel, for instance — and a relaxation of rules regarding drivers’ working hours.

The latter measure also drew criticism from the industry with the RHA branding it as an inadequate and ineffectual “sticking plaster” and trade unions worried that the move would reduce driver safety.

Although Brexit and changes to the IR35 rules have likely made the situation in Britain more acute, the UK is not unique in experiencing a driver shortage. According to research by logistics experts Transport Intelligence, Europe as a whole is experiencing a shortage of around 400,000 drivers. Poland currently needs an additional 124,000 drivers while Germany and France need around 50,000 and 43,000 respectively.