Brexit: what on earth is going on?
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As I write this, there are just fourteen working days until Brexit.
My job at the RHA has meant that I’ve been watching in horror as the Brexit deadline approaches through the lens of the road haulage industry. It’s increasingly clear that with so little time left before the March 29 deadline, things are almost certainly going to get more difficult for our industry.
The importance of maintaining free-flowing traffic between the UK and the EU cannot be overstated. It’s a system that we’ve all relied on since 1993. To say that things worked fine before ‘93 is like saying things worked before we had lorries in the first place. Sure, we could go back to using horses to move things around, but it quite clearly wouldn’t be as efficient.
While I’m talking in animal similes; watching Brexit approach is like watching the mythical hydra lumbering towards us – there are just so many heads to fight, and each one is loaded with a poisonous bite that could cripple the UK haulage industry.
Let’s take a look at each of these ugly heads to see where it’s going to bite us and how hard.
One of the largest and most obvious threats to the free flow of freight traffic between the UK and Europe is our lack of ECMT permits. If we leave the EU without a deal, UK-based hauliers will have to rely on these permits to legally access Europe.
A quick look at the numbers shows just how devastating this would be. Currently, around 40,000 lorries travel from the UK into Europe each year, each of which would require an ECMT permit, which is allocated to vehicles, rather than haulage firms. The UK has 984 annual ECMT permits, 2,592 monthly permits for Euro VI vehicles and 240 permits for Euro V vehicles. We cannot obtain more.
This just isn’t enough.
If the UK has to rely on ECMT permits, hauliers simply won’t be able to access the EU. This means job losses at haulage firms, choking the just-in-time supply chain and shortages of foods that we have come to expect here in the UK since we import 50% of our food.
Whether it’s no-deal or hard, Brexit is going to change the way the UK move goods to and from the EU. We’ve spent the last 26 years enjoying roll-on, roll-off movement for lorries, with relatively brief checks at customs points in EU countries. This will almost certainly change after March 29th.
Imperial Collage London has done work to predict the impact that longer delays at customs would have on the roads around the Port of Dover. Dr Han, Senior Lecturer at the College, found that two extra minutes spent on each vehicle at the border could more than triple the existing queues on the M20/A20, to 29 miles.
This is another clear threat to our just-in-time supply chain and could have a huge impact on the transport of perishable goods like Scottish seafood.
Even worse, it’s entirely likely that the new procedures put in place after Brexit would take longer than an extra two minutes to process.
Confusion reigns in the UK at the moment. Businesses are unclear on what new procedures will be put in place, and precious little time left for them to prepare.
Speaking of new hurdles for businesses to try and jump over.
A lesser-known hydra-head comes in the shape of mountains of customs declarations forms. A no-deal Brexit would see UK haulage firms required to complete one customs declaration form per consignment of goods on a lorry. Each of these forms takes around ten minutes to complete. It doesn’t sound so bad at first, but it very quickly becomes death by a thousand papercuts.
It’s not unusual for lorries to contain 8,000 different consignments. This means 8,000 different customs forms (or 16,000 if we include safety and security declarations). If we take 8,000 forms, each requiring ten minutes work to complete, it’s roughly 1,333 hours of work to complete them. That’s madness.
Even if you’ve only got 6 consignments on a lorry, that’s still an hour that someone, somewhere in your business, has to spend filling out forms on top of their usual work.
If Brexit hadn’t battered the optimism out of me months ago, I might suggest that this would at least be a way to reduce unemployment, as large firms will likely have to take on more admin staff. However, not only will the costs of having to employ people to complete these forms need to be passed onto consumers (the haulage industry runs on notoriously tight financial margins), but any incorrect forms will mean lorries being turned away from ports, which means delays and chaos.
Another of Brexit hydra head is set to take a bite out of the UK’s border is the issue of staff. New customs paperwork, checking for ECMT permits and implementing new customs checks will need more Border Agency staff, if the UK wants to minimize the impact of Brexit on its supply chain.
Currently, it looks like very few new staff have been taken on to handle this increased workload. Even if there was some miraculous hiring drive tomorrow, there still wouldn’t be enough time to properly train them.
France has been creating new infrastructure to deal with Brexit for months and is in a much better position to deal with it than the UK.
That’s not to say that the government here hasn’t done any preparation.
The government isn’t totally oblivious to the impact that a hard or no-deal Brexit would have on its ports. They’ve realized that there are likely to be massive, disruptive queues around places like Dover. Their answer to this is Operation Brock, which might be one of the worst named plans I’ve ever seen. Brock is an old English word for badger, an animal most Brits only ever see dead at the side of the road, so the name of this widely-derided plan might turn out to be quite apt.
Operation Brock would see parts of the M20 in Kent essentially shut off in one direction and turned into a lorry-park, with overflow for more lorries being added onto other roads in the area and even a disused airfield. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t seem to account for what truckers are meant to do while they’re stuck in these queues, which could last many hours. What are they meant to eat? How will they get water? Where will they use the bathroom?
To solve this last issue, the government has talked about dropping dozens of chemical toilets on the roadside for lorry drivers to use, but we haven’t heard anything about who is meant to clean or empty them.
These are not acceptable working conditions, and will certainly not help to entice new young drivers into an industry currently experiencing a massive driver shortage.
These are just some of the most pressing issues that the UK haulage industry is facing. It’s far from an exhaustive list, but they’re some of the points that we have spent a lot of time talking to the government about and trying to ensure they understand. Despite this, a lot of people still dismiss them as ‘Project Fear’.
While I’m sure it existed in the run-up to the referendum in 2016, the time for Project Fear has surely passed? The votes are in and have been for years.
The UK will almost certainly leave the EU.
We wouldn’t waste our time and resources talking about things that aren’t going to happen.
We’ve all got better things to do with our time (like stockpile food and medicine…)
We’re spending our time trying to ensure that the government doesn’t make huge mistakes and leave the haulage industry in a position where it cannot function. We’ve even got examples now, with the recent ‘work to rule’ industrial action in France last week, which saw some hauliers trapped in queues outside of Calais for up to 12 hours. These delays were caused by industrial action in which French Customs Officers worked to the rules which would be required if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. It caused massive disruption at Calais which had a knock-on effect on the whole UK supply chain.
We will continue to push for a transition period to ensure that, whether it’s a hard, soft or no-deal Brexit, UK hauliers will have time to prepare themselves for whatever changes will follow our departure from the EU. To leave without a transition period would be to sit back idly and allow the many heads of the hydra to tear our supply chain and economy to pieces.
Tonight, Theresa May is set to hold the first in what could be a series of votes lasting the rest of the week. Only time will tell if our politicians can keep the Brexit monster away from our industry.