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Britain's 'open for business' - but are our roads ready?

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Following last week's announcement that work on the long-mooted third runway at Heathrow would proceed, business groups were jubilant. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) and the Confederation of British Industry alike hailed the decision as a boost to Britain's post-Brexit prospects, boosting UK businesses' ability to break into overseas markets successfully.

But are the UK's haulage firms - and the national road transport infrastructure as a whole - ready to bear the burden associated with increased international trade? This hinges on three issues in particular: recruiting new drivers, the recent growth in road freight and further investment in the British road network.

The driver shortage

In recent years, there's been much concern in the UK haulage industry about the ongoing shortage of drivers. The workforce is ageing on the whole, and enticing younger recruits and women in to the industry is proving particularly difficult. According to the FTA, there was a 25 per cent decline in new driver registrations between 2008 and 2013. It's been estimated that the existing driver shortfall totals between 45,000 and 60,000, while a further 40,000 drivers are set to leave UK haulage by next year.

There have been attempts to plug the gap by recruiting from overseas. The FTA says that more than 10 per cent of the total haulage workforce - over 30,000 drivers - is comprised of foreign nationals from elsewhere in the EU.

Growth in freight

It's worth noting that road transport already accounts for the overwhelming majority of haulage in the UK. According to the Road Haulage Association, 80 per cent of British freight is moved by road, with the road haulage industry worth in excess of £74bn to the UK economy. As the fifth-largest employer in Britain with a workforce of some 2.2 million people, the continuing success of the road haulage industry is likely to be crucial to Britain's continued prosperity post-Brexit.

Road freight has experienced strong growth in recent years. Official figures recently revealed that in terms of domestic freight, there was an eight per cent increase in the amount of goods lifted and a 10 per cent rise in the amount of goods moved in the year to March 2016. The international picture was also encouraging if slightly more modest, with the amount of goods lifted increasing by eight per cent and the amount of goods moved up by six per cent.

Increasing international freight appears will be particularly crucial in the years ahead, as Britain prepares for life outside the European Union and quite probably its single market as well.

Investment in the road network

With business investment expected to weaken due to the uncertainty over the impending Brexit, state investment is likely to increase in order to partly fill the gap. There are already calls for the government to step up its infrastructural investment to boost British business. It should be noted that an ambitious programme of investment in the road network is already in place, with £15bn earmarked for redevelopment of English roads between 2015 and 2020.

However, it has been argued that a skills gap in road engineering may hinder the government's ability to put this investment to work. Writing for Highways UK, Joe Wilson - department manager for highways, transportation and planning at Matchtech - noted that a recent survey found 90 per cent of engineers polled agreed that, as in the haulage industry, there was a skills gap and that the engineering industry's most pressing challenge was its ageing workforce.

Certainly, the UK road network is currently stretched worryingly close to the limit. Figures from the Department for Transport revealed that UK roads were at their busiest ever last year, with traffic increasing by 2.2 per cent in 2015. This further underlines the need for large-scale investment in Britain's transport infrastructure.

What does all this mean for fleet managers?

Of course, fleet managers can't afford to just sit around and wait with their fingers crossed in the hope that everything works out alright on the night, as it were. Already, the use of telematics systems and technologies including GPS fleet tracking are giving fleet managers unprecedented insight. The real-time information provided by these systems is enabling them to deploy vehicles more effectively and battle the challenging environment by focussing on efficiency improvement.  

It won't be until 2025 at the earliest that Heathrow's third runway is finally open, but fleet managers need to be aware of the pressures on the UK road network which are building now - and how they themselves are likely to be affected.


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