Arable Matters

'Army on standby to restock Britain’s shelves amid truck driver shortage: Up to 2000 military HGV drivers on standby – however Britain is 100,000 lorry drivers short', I read in The Telegraph earlier this week.

“The UK is short of around 100,000 HGV drivers, which accounts for the struggle to get goods into shelves,” Road Haulage Association (RHA) chief executive, Richard Barnett, confirmed on Sky News, adding that it will take at least 18 months to train enough HGV drivers to tackle the current shortage.

He went on to add that concerns voiced earlier on Brexit were coming home to roost for haulage companies, with EU drivers – who accounted for a major share of the container work – not looking likely to return to our shores.

On top of this, he said firms were struggling to attract young talent into the industry, leaving gaps in the workforce as older drivers retired, while changes to the Inland Revenue’s IR35 regulations had created problems in the blurred line between those who claim to be self-employed and those who should be taxed as employees on PAYE.

So, it looks like the current edition of ‘The Scottish Haulier’ (if such a magazine exists) would be flagging up similarly doom-laden headlines to those in our own farming papers – while ‘The HGV Sun’ would no doubt run with the usual front-page lead of 'Trucking hell!'.

When you’re deeply steeped in the news of one particular industry, it sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise to find out that those working on other areas of life are suffering from many of the same uncertainties and unintended – or undisclosed – consequences as your own.

But, as we approach the season in which haulage plays a hugely important part in the smooth running of our own sector – and for the majority of us that means harvest – there’s a real chance that some of their problems might well impact on us as well.

For, especially in a catchy weather harvest – which this year’s look like it might well be – the smooth uplift and delivery of grain plays an incredibly important role in keeping our own produce flowing, rather than piling up in the store and creating a bottle neck in the utilisation of storage space which is likely to be at a premium this year.

While most grain merchants I’ve spoken to seem to be fairly relaxed that they’ll be able to provide the normal sort of service and capacity to move grain to the malting, or central stores, it doesn’t take a genius to wonder if the prospect of maybe managing to squeeze only one load of barley into a malting per day after sitting for hours in a queue would appeal as much to haulage companies as it used to do when there are many other sectors simply crying out for their services.

Locally, at least, I’ve heard reports of several transport companies seeing up to half of their lorries sitting idle in the depots simply because it had proved to be impossible to get hold of drivers for love nor money.

If reports are to be believed, companies have even been struggling to get enough drivers to make sure that milk tankers get out to dairy farms – so I can only hope that the confidence of the grain merchants is not misplaced.

Last week even saw a warning from NFU Scotland which stated that, with considerable potential for the uplift of grain from farms to be slower than normal this year – due to the loss of some handling facilities and the on-going shortage of lorry drivers, growers should think ahead about their ability to store and process grain.

The union’s combinable crop policy manager, David Michie, said that with many crops looking set to ripen at the same time this year, growers should speak to their buyers sooner rather than later and let them know if delayed uplift would be an issue.

He also advised farmers to contact their local machinery ring and let them know if they were either short of space, or, alternatively, if they had space to spare.

“Lots of grain coming in at the same time could result in logistical challenges, and early communication can help manage and mitigate these,” said Mr Michie.

Ian Muirhead, who represents the agricultural traders’ organisation, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) in Scotland, agreed that taking a proactive approach now would help prevent problems later, adding: “Good communication in the grain supply chain is the first step to finding solutions to any problems which may occur.”

Machinery rings could also help ease the strain. Ringlink Scotland’s Graham Bruce is also advising early action: “Harnessing the existing grain storage capacity of farms can buffer against any supply chain disruptions in this uncertain year. If you have any spare room for storage on your farm, then think about how you can support other Scottish arable farmers."

The shortage of lorry drivers is, however, nothing new – and the RHA claims a combination of factors has led to the current shortage.

Many of these are long-standing, contributing to the current situation including reduced access to labour because of Covid-19 and Brexit, the loss of ability to train and test new drivers and HMRC’s introduction of IR-35.

While grain hauliers might not have relied as heavily as other sectors on overseas drivers, the knock-on consequences of the tens of thousands of drivers who went home during Covid-19 and who have decided not to come back leaves a considerable hole in the workforce.

Of course, Brexit is another reason why many European drivers went back to their home countries, or decided to work elsewhere. When the UK was part of the single market, they used to be able to come and go as they pleased – but the additional border bureaucracy led to too much hassle for many of them to drive into and out of the UK.

Another similarity with farming is the fact that the haulage industry is also suffering from being populated by an ageing workforce – with the average age now believed to be well over 55 and a lot of those working seriously considering retirement. While it might not be quite the same, the option of driving a delivery van for Amazon, or any of the couriers working for the myriad of on-line sellers, does at least offer the benefit of letting drivers get home for the night.

Another issue is the fact that an estimated 30,000 HGV tests have been held up over the past 18 months, which has seriously stemmed the flow of the few who do want to get into the sector.

On top of that, the portrayal of lorries as nasty gas-guzzling, smoke belching, diesel-drinking juggernauts (which might even make our belching cows look innocuous) by the media, probably hasn’t helped improve the prospect of attracting youngsters into an industry where, despite hours being rigidly controlled, work can keep them away from home for days on end.

While the lack of owner-drivers has been exacerbated by the Inland Revenue's new IR35 regulations, the sector isn’t noted for the pay which the guys who pound the country’s highways and screw their rigs around in farmyards designed for horses and carts, get at the end of the day either.

But while I would doubt that many of us would grudge them getting a little boost to their paypackets, it looks like some of the supermarkets have already beaten us to it on that front – with Tesco and Asda apparently already passing additional increases in drivers’ rates back as a direct costs to producers (and no doubt using it as an excuse to jack up the prices on the shelves as well…).

In the short term, the recent derogation on working hours simply has to be reinstated – even though it has been described as nothing more than sticking plaster, when a much more thorough and long-lasting solution has to be thrashed out, with some serious government support and understanding.

Which only leaves me to add that if this outpouring of sympathy for the plight of haulage companies doesn’t ensure a queue of lorries at the road-end when harvest does eventually arrive, I don’t know what will …