[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered volumetric concrete mobile plants.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I place on record my appreciation of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time to debate an important, if hopefully not the most contentious, area of political regulation.
We are doubtless all familiar with the sight of large conventional drum mixers carrying concrete around our streets and roads. Those drum mixers operate at 32 tonnes and carry loads of 8 cubic metres to building sites. They carry concrete that has been prepared in a fixed location and then loaded on to the mixers. Drum mixers are the dominant force in the market, and there are something in the region of 20,000 of them.
Volumetric concrete mixers are a much smaller part of the concrete sector but can operate in circumstances in which the conventional drum mixers do not, most notably in rural areas or where smaller batches are required. They can legally weigh up to 44 tonnes on five axles and 38.4 tonnes on four axles. That is at the heart of the matter that I wish to discuss. They deliver concrete to individuals and smaller businesses and mix concrete on site. They are particularly useful for reaching remote areas and tight urban sites, and compared with larger traditional concrete carriers they have a range of other benefits, notably their lower carbon usage.
There is a large element of time-sensitivity at play here. Once mixed, concrete has a shelf life of only two hours, which means that drum mixers must get to their construction site and pour the concrete within that two-hour period or it goes to waste and to landfill. The need for VCMs in rural areas—where there are fewer plants mixing concrete at scale, if indeed there are any at all, and hence longer road journeys to sites—is obvious, but the place of VCMs in the sector goes beyond that. They are particularly useful for emergency road and rail repairs, where the mixer may have to wait around. For a drum mixer, an expensive batching plant must be set up to avoid concrete becoming unusable at the two-hour mark, but VCMs have no such issues, which shows their benefits in such situations.
There is a very real danger that, if the Government’s regulation of the sector gets the balance wrong, the whole volumetric concrete sector could be placed at risk and a small but very important part of the construction industry could be lost, for little discernible benefit.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing today’s debate on volumetric concrete mobile plants and for allowing me to intervene. Having worked in the construction industry for about two decades, and having gained a dumper driver ticket to take ready-mixed concrete on a dumper to various parts of the construction site, I could not resist taking part in today’s debate. More to the point, my constituency is home to Mixamate, which is a ready-mixed concrete business. Mixamate highlights to me not only the impact on livelihoods but the environmental and economic damage that policy could create. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on the Government to undertake a full impact assessment of current legislation?
Had I known that the hon. Gentleman had that level of expertise, I would have had him on the all-party parliamentary group for lower carbon construction vehicles a long time ago. I agree with him. I do not want to reheat old debates, but we are where we are today because there was not a proper economic and environmental impact assessment at the time. I hope the Minister will indicate that the Government are willing to revisit the issue. If we go through the process properly, we will find that there is a better way of dealing with the issue, but I will let the Minister speak for himself.
VCMs operate right across the United Kingdom. Their manufacture and use are estimated to contribute £380 million to the economy and employ more than 15,000 skilled workers. They operate the length and breadth of the country, and in communities such as those that I represent they are of prime importance to the local construction sector. Businesses such as Andrew Sinclair Ltd in Orkney and Tulloch Developments in Shetland tell me regularly about the desperately detrimental impact that the proposed changes will have on them.
Companies with VCMs operate in at least 134 constituencies and are a truly integral part of the country’s construction industry. For almost 50 years, they have operated within a proportionate regulatory environment. Until 2018, VCMs on four axles could run at the manufacturer’s design weight, which is often about 41 tonnes. However, in 2018, the Department for Transport decided to impose a 32 tonne limit for all VCMs, enacted through the Goods Vehicles (Plating and Testing) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2017. The limit forces VCM operators to phase out their current VCMs by 2028, replacing them with the 32 tonne model, which is equally expensive but less effective. Lighter vehicles mean more journeys on the road and more carbon emissions as a consequence.
That is despite the fact that Highways England’s 2017 report endorsed the operation of VCMs at about 44 tonnes on five axles and 38.4 tonnes on four axles. That proposal had the support of the then Transport Minister, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). To be less than generous, this is a classic example of an obscure regulation changed by civil servants that causes a massive headache for businesses in the real world.
The right hon. Gentleman said that, if the proposal goes through, there will be more journeys by lighter vehicles. Has his APPG looked into how many additional drivers will be needed to drive those additional vehicles? Is there a surplus of such drivers in the construction industry? The advice I am getting is that very few parts of the construction industry have too many workers just now.
Yes, indeed. I think the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. The truth of the matter is that heavy goods vehicle and lorry drivers are in scarce supply, and that is being felt not just in the construction industry but throughout the supply chain for just about every possible sector. That is another of the operations of the law of unintended consequences.
The frustration that brings us to the debate is that there has been strong opposition to the plans, led by organisations such as the Batched on Site Association, which feel that, until today, they have not been able to get a hearing. I very much hope that, after the Minister’s response, they will feel that they are at last being heard.
The change has no support among the operators, will yield no benefits to the construction industry overall and threatens the very future of VCMs in this country and the benefits that come with them. The most direct consequence of the Government’s plan is that VCMs will be limited in the amount of concrete they can carry. Operators continuing after 2028 will have to carry less weight, which is inefficient for them, their customers and the overall economy.
Traditional drum mixers and VCMs can produce something in the region of 8 cubic metres of concrete. However, because VCMs carry all the extra equipment that turns them into mobile plants, including conveyor belts to mix the sand, mixing equipment, cement, water and aggregates, they weigh notably more. Forcing VCM weights down to 32 tonnes cuts their capacity to between 6.5 cubic metres and 7 cubic metres of any mix of concrete on one trip. That has a significant impact on their efficiency, with knock-on effects on cost-effectiveness and the viability of the industry to continue at its current capacity.
The industry predicts that the changes coming in 2028 will have a dire impact on the sector. The Minister will have heard dire predictions from sectors affected by change before—we all have—and scepticism when such interests bring forward their concerns is healthy and necessary in Government. There is, however, significant and objective evidence that points to the industry’s predictions being well founded, and possibly even understated. After the Department announced the weight limit reduction, sales of VCMs fell from 55 million in 2017 to 9 million in 2020—still some eight years ahead of the deadline. Operators have already started voting with their feet—or, more accurately, their wheels—to the detriment of the sector and the construction industry as a whole. If the industry suffers and shrinks because of the regulations, many of its benefits will be lost.
Furthermore, traditional drum mixers can carry only one strength of concrete at a time, whereas VCMs have the benefit of carrying multiple if required. Take this simple example: if a customer needs only 4 cubic metres of strong concrete and 3 cubic metres of medium-strength concrete, they will have to pay for two concrete mixers if heavier VCMs are banned. VCMs mix concrete on site and can do so at whatever strengths are required and, crucially, all on one lorry. Without VCMs, such situations would be much more difficult to manage. That is why VCMs are such an important, if small and perhaps slightly niche, part of the concrete sector and the construction industry.
I have had representations from right across the country since securing this debate a mere eight days ago. The message from every corner—from those who are charged with representing the sector as a whole, to individual companies—remains the same. Sonny Sangha, founder of iMix Concrete, who operates a 32 tonne VCM as well as his current fleet of four traditional 38.4 tonne VCMs, talked to me about the estimated impact of the Government changes. He said:
“We estimate an annual loss of turnover of around £100,000 per VCM at 32 tonnes. The loss of capacity also means the need for purchasing more vehicles to accommodate the workload now that we have VCMs on both weight limits...We can see a huge difference in output and economic performance between the vehicles. The new 32T vehicle is only able to carry around 6/7m3 of concrete (depending on mix type), whereas with the other vehicles we can carry a comfortable 8m3 of concrete.”
The root cause of the problem is that there has not been an adequate economic or environmental impact assessment. The consultancy group Regeneris was brought in by the Batched on Site Association to calculate the impact of cutting the weight of VCMs to 32 tonnes. It found that a 27% cut on a 44 tonne VCM and a 16.6% cut on a 38.4 tonne VCM is likely to add 14 million more lorry miles to UK roads and 598,000 more lorry journeys each year. There will be 200 more VCMs on the roads to make up for the carrying of smaller loads, pumping 120,000 additional tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There will be a 20% increase in CO2, nitrogen oxide and particulates, generating extra carbon costs in excess of £7 million per annum. That will also require an additional 200 HGV drivers at a time of shortages. On top of that, because drum mixers have a two-hour production life for concrete, much of the concrete going to landfill comes from drum mixers.
Is the two-hour issue not absolutely critical? Some communities, particularly in remote constituencies across Scotland and rural parts of England, are simply outwith the two-hour distance, and therefore the concrete will end up hardened and generating more waste in landfill.
It is absolutely critical, and it adds massively to the already significant extra costs for construction projects in those remote communities. Indeed, as the MP for Orkney and Shetland, I probably know that better than most.
I am not going to steal the Minister’s thunder; he has kindly been in touch with me.
Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes, I want to congratulate him on securing this debate. We have a presence of VCM operators in Knowsley, which is important to our local economy. I endorse the powerful he has made, and I hope that when the Minister responds, he acknowledges the force of that case.
I very much hope so, too. The Minister’s office has been in touch with me to very kindly give me notice of some of what he intends to say. This may be a new way of introducing disappointment into my life after 22 years as an MP, but for once I approach this debate with a smidge more confidence and optimism than usual. The Minister has given me notice of some of what he intends to say in his speech, but I suggest that there is substantial evidence out there that would support a different approach if the Department were minded to harvest it in a systematic way.
There is also important context involving other HGV regulation. In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) announced the abolition of the 32 tonne limit for electric HGVs, allowing them to run up to 34 tonnes. On 23 April, the Minister announced that the 4 tonne increase in weight for HGVs—taking the limit from 44 tonnes to 48 tonnes—was being trialled to cut lorry numbers and to save carbon. On 10 May, the Minister announced that the Government are allowing haulage lorries an additional 2-plus metres in length, with the aim of cutting the numbers of such HGVs on the road by 8%, and reducing 70,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. All that suggests to me that the thinking of the Department may have been different in 2018, and that there is now a need for the approach to VCMs to catch up with that new thinking and to benefit from the same approach.
As I have said, I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this debate at such short notice. I am grateful also that a good number of colleagues from around the House are present on a Thursday afternoon. I place on record that I have received a lot of apologies and representations from Members right around the country, including the hon. Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), the right hon. Members for Ashford (Damian Green), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and for Warley (John Spellar), and the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). They would all have been here had they had a bit more notice, but we all know that when a Member gets an offer of time to debate something like this, they do not quibble; they take it. That is what we have done. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairship, Mr Efford, and it is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), although I hope someone has noticed that the annunciator has been displaying the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) as speaking in this debate for the last 10 minutes. When Hansard is produced, I trust that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will get the credit for his contribution and that it will not be inadvertently attributed to a Member who is not present.
I will speak very briefly because the case has been made so powerfully, and I cannot wait to hear the Minister, given the spoiler alert in the previous speech. I will speak on behalf of Mixamate, which operates in my constituency in south Leeds. I have looked at all the documentation that it has produced, and it seems to me that it has made a really powerful case. This is an innovative product. Anyone who, for their sins, has tried to mix extremely small amounts of concrete with a spade and shovel will know what a boon it is to have machinery that can do that. It has the flexibility to deliver for longer than the two hours to which drum mixers are confined. It has different strengths and can produce different quantities for different places. It is a great innovation, so I say well done on that.
A factory in Sheffield has been responsible for production, but, as we have heard, orders have decreased. I am perplexed as to why we are in this situation. Like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I have looked at the Department for Transport news release that announced the weight increases, including, interestingly, for the longer semi-trailers—known in the trade as LSTs—which will be subject to a 44 tonne weight limit. At the same time, the Government are saying that the weight limit for VCMs has to come down. All of the arguments in the briefing material that the VCM sector, including Mixamate, has given to assist us in today’s debate are also made in the Department for Transport’s press release. That includes arguments about fewer journeys and carbon reductions if the vehicle weighs more. Let us not forget, either, that if a VCM does multiple drop-offs, its weight will go down once it has delivered the first part of concrete. I note with interest that Denmark had proposed to do the same, but it has now reversed its approach.
Is this about weight? As I understand it, National Highways said that 44 tonnes on five axles, and 38.4 tonnes on four axles was not a problem. If the issue is weight and the impact on road surfaces, bridges and so on, why on earth has the Department for Transport made three recent announcements on increasing the weight limits, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland in his powerful speech? I can only echo everything he said, and, like others, I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
I apologise for being late, Mr Efford; I was in the debate on contaminated blood. I speak on behalf of Ve-Tech Concrete Ltd, a company in my constituency that operate VCMs. As has already been covered by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), there are lots of different reasons why there are advantages to VCMs. He highlighted the fact that they can deliver concrete over distances in rural areas that are more than two hours away from a concrete mixing plant. That is an absolute; if someone is further away, a drum concrete mixer cannot serve them. VCMs can cover parts of the UK that others cannot.
VCMs can also wait until the concrete is required. When utilities need to make repairs, even in the middle of the night, or when a repair takes longer, the VCM can wait until the concrete is required. They can deliver multiple small loads of different strengths of concrete to different consumers. Those often include farmers who need a small amount of concrete to make an adjustment around the farm. In rural communities such as mine—farming covers most of my constituency—VCMs are vital.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that it is hard to understand what the 2018 decision was about. If it was about damage to roads, there are other, heavier vehicles allowed on the road. If it is about what VCMs carry, and the suggestion that they should not carry more goods than a goods vehicle, then there is a failure to understand that they are actually plant. They mix the concrete, and therefore have all the equipment required in mixing the concrete. They also have pumping equipment, so that a separate lorry is not needed to turn up and work with a drum mixer to pump the concrete where it is required. I read in the briefing that, because of access issues, it is a VCM that Westminster is using for some of the repairs to the estate. It is about time that we heard a slightly updated approach to VCMs.
Why was the decision made? It is hard to understand if it was on the basis of road damage when there are heavier vehicles. It is certainly hard to understand if it is about climate, when it is clear that VCMs reduce journeys, increase flexibility and keep other trucks off the road. I too hope that maybe there is a change of mind in the Department for Transport, and that the Minister will give hope to the companies in our constituencies, or serving our constituencies, across the UK.
Before I start my summing up, Mr Efford, with your permission I will briefly mention the passing of Winnie Ewing—probably the greatest politician that we have ever sent down here. I hope that in due course the House will have the opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a giant on whose shoulders many of us are proud to stand.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has set out the arguments very powerfully indeed. If there were powerful arguments against his case, he is the kind of person who would have introduced them to his speech. The reason that he has not given us those arguments and explained why they do not carry any weight is that there does not seem to be any argument now. There might have been an argument in 2017-18—I do not know what it was, but there might have been. I cannot see what the argument is now, and I do not think the Government can, which is why they are going in the opposite direction in relation to the weight limits on a lot of other kinds of HGVs.
I can understand that there will sometimes be an assumption in the eyes of the public that anything that reduces the weight of a lorry on our roads is a good thing, but the public often forgets, as do politicians, that reducing the maximum weight of a vehicle does not necessarily reduce the total amount of stuff that it can carry on our roads. As has been pointed out in this case, if we reduce the maximum weight of a cement-mixing lorry that is allowed on the roads, only two things can happen: either there are many more journeys or far fewer things getting built and repaired.
The construction industry in Scotland generates about £17 billion for the Scottish economy and, in 2021, employed 158,000 people. It is also one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions in Scotland, as I have no doubt it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, so there is clearly a huge necessity for Governments and industry to work together. We will not get to net zero unless we work with the construction industry towards a net zero future for that industry. But I do not think that a change in the weight that we are talking about here is a part of that. As we have heard, if anything, it might make the problem even worse.
It would be reasonable to ask the Government to not necessarily announce immediately that they are going to drop the decision, but to ask them to at the very least come up with a more up-to-date and more relevant impact assessment on the economic and environmental impact, based on how the world is today, not how it was in 2017 or 2018, because the world has changed in a lot of ways since then.
As I indicated in my question to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland earlier, it is all very well saying that businesses will just have to buy more slightly less heavy vehicles, operate them in a different way and lose more money, but who will drive these things? We do not have enough HGV drivers in the United Kingdom as it is—thank you very much, Brexit. That is one of the benefits we were not told about before 2016. Where do we think all these other drivers will come from? What impact will that have on the construction industry’s costs if it gets caught up in a wage war with other users of heavy-goods vehicles?
What account are we taking of today’s interest rates increase—the highest we have had since the end of the banking crash in 2008? That makes investment in new homes, for example, a lot less attractive than it was. We need the impact of that to be built in to any further assessment.
We will need the construction industry for the changes in our infrastructure. Not all infrastructure development is good by any stretch of the imagination. There is a need, for example, for a massive hospital and school rebuilding programme. That is already happening apace, but there is still a lot more to be done. We still need to build more homes for people to live in. We have far too many homes for people to use as holiday homes once in a while, but not enough homes that are suitable for people to live in in the places they want to live—for example, close to their work.
There will be a significant amount of new-build construction as well as rebuild, repair and maintenance construction needed for as long as any of us will be here, and probably for several lifetimes after. We need to help the industry to address the issues that it has just now with its impact on the environment. I think the industry is ready for that discussion and is willing to change.
But I think the change that is being discussed here is one that the industry is resisting, not just because industry tends to resist anything that it does not like, but because it can see that that will significantly threaten the viability of a lot of small businesses across the United Kingdom, and because it can see that the problem that the change is supposed to address is likely to make it even worse. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Efford. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate and for explaining quite a complicated subject in a way that most of us, including me, could understand—almost.
Volumetric concrete mixers have been in operation in this country for nearly 50 years. At the time of their arrival, they were a groundbreaking concept: they allowed all the ingredients for concrete to be stored separately, with operators then mixing the concrete on-site. It must have seemed quite magical, back in those times, to have that scientific breakthrough. It enabled manufacturers to circumnavigate the shelf-life issue faced by drum mixers, which need to deliver and pour their concrete in two hours—as we have heard from many speakers today—or the entire batch is wasted, and deposited in landfill.
Over the years, there have been major innovations in the VCM industry, culminating in the invention of the combined VCM plus pump, which eliminates the need for two lorries, helping to reduce congestion and emissions. VCMs may also provide benefits to the consumer. For example, if a customer underestimates or overestimates the amount of concrete needed, a VCM can adapt and increase the quantities, without relying on a second delivery, or produce a smaller batch, preventing the dumping of wasted concrete in landfill.
The ability to batch on site may also be beneficial to those who live in rural communities. We have already heard the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) talk about that, particularly in the context of her own constituency. We all know how many rural areas have difficulties in all sorts of ways whenever there are delivery issues. This seems to be something that it is quite important to take on board.
However, I am aware that by 2028 the VCM industry will be subject to the same weight limits as drum mixers and other heavy goods vehicles. I have met operators of these vehicles multiple times to discuss their concerns about what they see as an existential threat to their industry. Due to the extra equipment that VCMs carry in order to batch the concrete on site, being subject to that weight limit could cut their capacity and impact on their business models. That may result in operators having to send out multiple VCMs for a job, whereas before it could be managed by one vehicle. I am concerned about the impact that it could have on British VCM operators, as well as on air pollution and congestion.
There are already weight exemptions and allowances for certain vehicle types. Indeed, VCMs currently have such an allowance, albeit on a temporary basis. Surely the simplest thing to do is to extend the exemption and make it permanent. I really sympathise with the points raised by all right hon. and hon. Members today that VCM operators require certainty if they are to continue to operate.
I encourage the Minister to engage meaningfully with the concerns of the VCM industry and consider the points raised in this debate. There seem to be many issues there that the Government have pledged to sort out—for instance, climate change, the carbon footprint, and support for small and medium-sized enterprises, which we know are the backbone of this country. That would seem only right. I know that the Minister has already spoken to the operators about their concerns. I hope that those discussions, and the contributions that he has heard today, will lead to a long-term solution that will protect jobs and encourage British innovation.
It is a delight to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I apologise to the Chamber that the roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), is unavoidably detained, but I was involved with this issue when I was roads Minister, so I hope that I can bring some degree of understanding.
I very much associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) in relation to the just announced death of Winnie Ewing, who was by any standards a great politician and a great spokesman for her party and her views.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for this motion and for the work he has done on this issue. Let me start by making a fundamental point. In 2017 and 2018, legal changes were made in relation to volumetric concrete mixers in two areas, as he highlighted. One change was to include volumetric concrete mixers in the operator licensing system, which ensures that VCMs are in the same regulatory regime as most large goods vehicles. As far as I understand it, there is no request to revisit that change. The second change concerned the inclusion of volumetric concrete mixers in the annual heavy vehicle roadworthiness testing regime. They were previously exempted, in part because of the difficulty of accommodating large vehicles in testing stations. However, as VCMs are based on a standard HGV chassis, it became clear over time that they could be accommodated on that basis.
It is important to say, however, that no changes were made to the maximum permitted weights for volumetric concrete mixers by regulation. It is also important to see that in context. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) asked whether some of these recent announcements really should be ignored because, as he read it, they were about higher weights. The answer is that no increase to axle weights was announced, and we are principally concerned with axle weights.
Inclusion in the annual heavy vehicle test requires a plate displaying the maximum on-road weight of the vehicle. This displays beyond doubt what is the legally accepted maximum weight on roads of a heavy goods vehicle. That is often different from the maximum weight a vehicle is permitted off-road, or on private land, and which the vehicle chassis can bear.
The Department recognised that there had been a significant period previously of operations on public roads by some volumetric concrete mixers at higher weights than these unchanged maximum on-road weights, a situation that it and others regard as illegal. Therefore, the Department sought views and checked the feasibility of a limited temporary period of operation at higher maximum permitted weights for volumetric concrete mixers. Of course, this is not an uncontested issue. There are other parties—whether they be local authorities, mayoralties, or other players in the relevant market—who have views that may not directly accord with all the views held and discussed in this debate.
Following engagement with parts of the industry and a written consultation, Ministers decided to allow an exceptional temporary weight allowance for volumetric concrete mixers for up to 10 years. Other possibilities were considered, and discussions were held at that time with parts of the industry, but no other exceptions were ever approved by Ministers.
The exceptional temporary weight allowance is a significant adaptation for VCMs, which comes despite the extra wear and tear that they impose on road surfaces. Load modelling done by the Department in collaboration with National Highways—which, at that time, was Highways England—highlighted a particular risk to bridge structures, which affects the durability of this exceptional arrangement. It is therefore not true, as I think was implied in one contribution to the debate, that in some sense National Highways has signed off higher weights. On the contrary, it found in its report that those weights sit outside the bridge load model and therefore are likely to increase wear on bridges.
The Minister mentions the particular issue of bridges that might not be able to sustain a higher weight. Why is a weight limit not placed on individual bridges, so that the heavier vehicles can be allowed on the parts of the road network that can sustain such loads?
That is a separate question, and, of course, local authorities may or may not choose to do such things. This is about what the view of National Highways was, and as I have said, its view was that there was a particular risk to bridge structures and that that was one of the constraints on the durability and longevity of this arrangement.
An initial assessment into road wear by the Department suggested that increasing the weight limit for four-axle volumetric concrete mixers from 32 tonnes to 38.4 tonnes could increase average road wear by between 110% and 220% per vehicle. The exact impact is heavily dependent on the vehicle’s loading.
The Department recently announced the introduction of longer semi-trailers into general use because many operators run out of trailer space before reaching the permitted maximum gross vehicle weight. These longer semi-trailers are up to 2.05 metres longer than a standard trailer, but are designed to carry the same weight as standard trailers. Therefore, there is no increase in the normal maximum weight or axle weights for vehicles using the longer semi-trailers.
The Department recently announced regulations to implement an increase in weight limits for certain alternatively fuelled or zero-emission vehicles. The weight limit increase is up to a maximum of 1 tonne for an alternatively fuelled vehicle and a flat 2 tonnes for a zero-emission vehicle. In all cases, the maximum weight limit for individual axles—again, the key measure—remains unchanged. The vehicle types that are having their weight limits changed by this regulation include articulated lorries and road train combinations with five or six axles normally limited to 40 tonnes and four-axle combinations normally limited to 36 or 38 tonnes. No additional weight allowance will apply to the heaviest articulated lorry and road train combinations of 44 tonnes or four-axle rigid motor vehicles of 32 tonnes.
I am genuinely grateful to the Minister because a number of people in the debate have said, “We do not understand how the decision was reached”, and he has given us an insightful account of how that happened. Those of us who have served in Government know how it often works: the focus is on the process rather than the outcome. That is exactly what has happened here. If he were to compare the outcome—the consequences of the changes that were made—with the consequences of the previous regulations, on any cost-benefit analysis, would it not look like a slightly unusual move to make?
It is not true to say there has been a focus on process rather than outcome. On the contrary, it is specifically the concern that there may be an adverse outcome on road wear and tear and safety that sits behind the concern to maintain the position as it is, or has been, on vehicle axle loadings.
Let me come to the wider point that the right hon. Member touched on. I note the points about the value of the industry and that the use of VCMs has important commercial advantages over alternatives, such as allowing an exact quantity of concrete to be produced. That has influenced the implementation of the temporary weight arrangement. However, the 32-tonne maximum weight for four or more axle goods vehicles used in normal service is important in the context of maintaining the roads. It is not possible to allow the general circulation of large numbers of overweight rigid goods vehicles freely on the roads. That would risk substantial structural damage and failure.
For heavy loads, some other construction-related vehicles, such as tippers, are available as six-axle articulated combinations. They can carry higher loads legally. For VCMs, there has been some design development. Part of the earlier reason for the exemption was to allow a period in which there could be design development, but I appreciate that the unladen weight cannot be reduced by the difference between the temporary arrangement and the standard weight limit.
The Department recognises the high level of concern expressed in the debate about the businesses of those operating VCMs. I do not think it is true to say that those businesses have not received a good hearing. They have been extremely effective in making their case over the years, in my experience. The number of colleagues referenced by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland testifies to the effectiveness of the APPG and the sector in mobilising political opinion. Those concerns rightly include the viability of what are, in many cases, small businesses, and we understand that. It is important to recognise, as many Members have today, the contribution made by the industry more widely in the construction sector.
The Department proposes—the right hon. Member alerted us to this key point—to seek evidence about whether the current temporary arrangements for special maximum weights for VCMs should be amended. That comes just over halfway through a temporary 10-year period. The intention is to review the temporary weights and the criteria for them, including how long they will last. The volumetric concrete mixer arrangement is, after all, unique.
In conducting that call for evidence, it will be important to consider whether there are other situations that are in any way similar to the one we have discussed today. National Highways will be commissioned to properly re-examine the bridge load assessments, which have been raised in the discussion, as they relate to VCMs. It is important that all potentially interested parties are able to comment and are reached. We therefore intend that a public call for evidence should be launched during the autumn, and I expect a wide range of parties to be interested and potentially to make submissions.
Will the Minister reassure us that the call for evidence will be wide-ranging and not just focused on weight on roads? We have highlighted that ending up sending two lorries—a pumping lorry and a concrete lorry—doubles the weight carried by roads, but we have also highlighted the issues of environmental pollution, congestion and reducing carbon, which are even more important these days.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that those are important issues, and it is very important that a call for evidence does not become a general trawl through the literature but retains its focus, and its focus will be on whether the current temporary arrangements for maximum weights should be amended. I suspect, although I cannot predict—we will leave this for the Minister and officials who are doing the final work to decide—that any proper consideration or evidence that bears on that question will be potentially submissible.
It is important to say that running at higher than usual weight is not without risk. It increases road wear, and some of that road wear increases very rapidly—indeed, up to the power of four—with axle load. Of course, there are also risks associated with braking and tyre wear. Volumetric concrete mixers are used heavily in some urban areas, including central London, alongside cyclists. As I have said, before 2018, and despite the law, some had operated at higher weights for many years. There is a concern that overloaded or heavy volumetric concrete mixers may be liable to have a higher centre of gravity, which could create safety risks. In some recent examples, VCMs have been stopped and found to have severe defects, including being loaded to a weight exceeding that of even the higher temporary arrangements.
All those issues and evidence will have to be taken into account as part of this proper process of consideration, but I hope that hon. Members present will regard it a useful step forward that the Department has decided to hold a call for evidence. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate these issues today.
First, I very much echo the comments of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) about the sad passing of Winnie Ewing. Winnie Ewing was the first elected parliamentarian I ever saw in the flesh, probably in 1981. She turned up—I was never quite clear whether it was at her invitation or the invitation of the school; either was possible with Winnie—and addressed the assembled school. Even as a 12, 13 or 14-year-old—however old I was—her passion and commitment for standing up for the communities across the highlands and islands that she represented was obvious, almost palpable. Her passing is a sad loss to all of us in Scottish politics and, indeed, politics across the whole of the United Kingdom.
All those who have contributed to the debate have made powerful and compelling cases. I am grateful that the Front-Bench spokespeople acknowledged that and for the call for evidence that the Minister announced. That is the way that Government should work, and I am delighted that we now have the opportunity to make this case. I have no doubt that the companies whose effective lobbying has led to the setting up of the APPG—Nigel Griffiths is spearheading that in his professional capacity—will continue to do their work. I see this as an opportunity and not as a conclusion, and I hope that what we have taken here is the first step along the road. If it is, we have done something that will benefit all our constituencies and the wider construction industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered volumetric concrete mobile plants.