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Road Vehicles (Authorised Weight) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Road Vehicles (Authorised Weight) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.

My Lords, these draft regulations were published on 23 January and laid before Parliament on 26 April. They will be made under powers conferred by Sections 41(1), (2)(d), (3) and (5) of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

The highest greenhouse gas-emitting sector of the economy is transport, with road freight making a significant contribution to those emissions. In 2021, heavy goods vehicles produced 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from domestic transport. Shifting towards cleaner types of vehicles and fuels is therefore vital if emissions from this sector are to be brought down in line with the 2050 net-zero goal.

These regulations implement increases in weight limits for certain alternatively fuelled or zero-emission vehicles. The weight limit increase is up to a maximum of one tonne for an alternatively fuelled vehicle and a flat two tonnes for a zero-emission vehicle. In all cases, the maximum weights for individual axles will remain unchanged.

The vehicle types that are having their weights 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 motor vehicles of 32 tonnes. As the noble Baronesses know, those are the standard limits and types of vehicle.

These regulations will also apply to certain smaller zero-emission lorries with two or three axles and zero-emission three-axle articulated buses. Alternatively fuelled versions of these types can already operate at up to one tonne above the normal limits.

A vehicle’s power train consists of the components which generate power and then transmit it to the road to move the vehicle. Alternatively fuelled or zero-emission heavy goods vehicles may have a heavier power train compared to traditionally fuelled, heavy goods vehicles with internal combustion engines. For example, they may be fuelled by a gas stored in a pressurised fuel tank or they might use batteries. These components can be significantly heavier than a conventional petrol or diesel fuel tank and combustion engine used in an equivalent vehicle.

The typically heavier power trains of these vehicles means that, under the current vehicle weight limit rules, they may have to carry a reduced amount of cargo compared to an equivalent fossil-fuelled vehicle in order not to breach the weight limit. The higher weight of the empty vehicle essentially acts as a payload penalty. This decreases the commercial viability of these new types of cleaner vehicles, as more vehicles may be required to move the same amounts of cargo or they may just be restricted to moving lighter loads.

These regulations increase the maximum permitted weight for the relevant zero-emission vehicles by a flat two tonnes. That is most appropriate for a zero-emission vehicle, because the weight of the power train is usually significantly more than two tonnes. The weight limit increase for alternatively fuelled vehicles is up to one tonne, because it depends on the actual extra weight of the power train. That will be assessed and put into what I think is called the ministry certificate—the little chitty that goes inside the lorry and basically tells enforcers how much weight that lorry can take. It is key that these two things are different and are considered differently, because they take into account the variations and different features of the power trains of these cleaner vehicles.

However, the weight limit does not apply beyond the existing maximum for a six-axle vehicle of 44 tonnes. These vehicles are therefore within the current normal limits for infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. We see no reason why they cannot freely circulate on the road network. Furthermore, the per-axle weight is also not being changed because, if it is, one would see increased road wear and deterioration. It is also worth pointing out that operators in the European Union also have that flexibility and are using their vehicles when it comes to cabotage movements in the UK already, and there have been no significant issues.

There was a public consultation on this draft instrument, which ran from July to September 2021. There were 92 responses, with 59% in favour and 6% opposed, the remainder being “don’t know”. We obviously looked at the rationale and concluded that we were content to go ahead with that.

The only other thing to point out about the statutory instrument is that the regulations will include a requirement for the Secretary of State for Transport to conduct a review of them on a five-yearly basis, because there will be a rapid development in technology and they may not be appropriate in five years, for whatever reason. It is important to include that—but, otherwise, I see this as fairly straightforward, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation. I understand the need for these changes for practical reasons, to develop and enable the rollout of the new generation of HGVs. I also realise that, as the Minister referred to just now, this measure is part of our international obligation derived from the TCA, if we want our goods vehicles to be able to operate abroad. But the Minister would be very surprised if I did not have some questions and comments.

She mentioned articulated buses, but what about non-articulated buses? I remember, about seven or eight years ago, having a ride on a prototype electric bus in the Westminster area, where it was made clear to us that there was a special dispensation for this bus. It was a two-level bus, not a single-storey bus. They made it clear that, because the battery was so heavy, there was a special dispensation to allow this bus to operate in the London area because of weight limits. Technology moves on and batteries may not be as heavy now, but it would be interesting to know where we are, because an awful lot of electric buses are being ordered at this moment.

That leads me on to an obvious question—to ask the Minister what we are talking about in terms of the number of goods vehicles, at which this is largely aimed, on our roads at the moment. Several paragraphs in the Explanatory Memorandum talk about this being the early stages of development, but we hope that this development is going to roll out very quickly, and it would be a good thing to have some kind of measure of what is happening at the moment. There will be—and this is severely underplayed in the Explanatory Memorandum —a cumulative impact on road structures, which are bad enough already in Britain. People are always complaining about the potholes and road surfaces, and there will be an impact on them.

Were the views of National Highways sought? Obviously, this will have an impact on its finances. Despite its name, National Highways is not in charge of motorways in Scotland and Wales, so were the views of the devolved Administrations sought? Looking at paragraph 10.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum, I think they probably were not asked. Of course, local authorities are in charge of local roads, and I am also interested in their responses about the impact of vehicles such as this on their road surfaces. The roads in the local area around a heavy goods vehicle depot are going to get quite a pasting over time.

I note that the consultation was two years ago. Why has there been a delay this long? Bits of the Explanatory Memorandum sound a bit out of date. It talks about the technology being in an “early stage”, but things have moved on a lot since then. However, in paragraph 12.3, the EM mentions

“potential changes in accident severity”.

This is a very serious issue, because heavier vehicles are more likely to kill when involved in an accident. The EM suggests, obliquely, the potential need for additional training and familiarisation, which could have a financial impact for businesses. Has any thought been given to formalising the need for additional training for the drivers of these bigger vehicles?

Before I move to my final point, I will mention the issue of road surfaces. I am stretching this a little, but I am sure the Minister saw coverage of the collapse of a multi-storey car park in America. That story led to a debate in the press about the impact of heavier vehicles—in that case, it was obviously cars and small vans. There will be a case for looking at and reinforcing our infrastructure. The Minister is clearly aware of it because she referred to the impact on bridges. Has the department looked at the impact on multi-storey car parks? Is there a programme to ensure that, before this technology is rolled out to a large percentage of people, the safety of car parks is reassessed?

My final point is that the impact on road surfaces and the possible training implications of this measure mean that there should have been an impact assessment and consultation with the devolved Administrations.

I, too, thank the Minister for setting out the basis of these important regulations, which are fairly straightforward on the face of it. As she said, transport is our economy’s biggest greenhouse gas-emitting sector and a huge amount of those emissions come from HGVs. The issues around commercial viability and making sure that there is no commercial disadvantage to those vehicles because they have an inherent weight disadvantage built in are also really important.

We have no objection to these regulations in principle. We also understand that the extensive consultation with the industry took place in 2021, with 59% of respondents in favour. However, to add to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, this consultation was carried out over two years ago. In view of the urgency of tackling the climate emergency, can the Minister shed any light on why the regulations are only now being introduced? Was National Highways consulted on the regulations and on the long-term impact on the national roads infrastructure, which may be considerable?

Other questions need to be answered, some of which the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has already referred to. There are concerns for all vehicle types about the impact of the additional weight of alternative and low-carbon fuel technology. Just last week, the AA was flagging-up the issue of weight for car parks. It is not just from America that the concerns are coming. Some of the car parks built in the 1960s and 1970s were not built to take the heavier vehicles that result from new technologies. I appreciate that, for the most part, HGVs will not be using multi-storey car parks, but this applies to all vehicles with alternative technologies.

The main issue arising from these weight amendments to HGVs is the potential impact on our crumbling road infrastructure, which is already bad enough. We have a backlog of 1.5 million potholes in the UK, and there is an estimated cost of £10 billion. While some very welcome funding has been provided to local authorities to tackle this, it is nowhere near enough to fill the gaps in funding—or the gaps in our roads—from successive rounds of cuts to local government funding. Our road infrastructure should reflect the needs of an economy that is aspiring to be the strongest in the G7—that is really important.

There are warnings from the industry about the impact on our roads, bridges and car parks of heavier vehicles. What assessment have the Government carried out to determine where there are vulnerabilities in the highways network which may be exacerbated by the introduction of these heavier vehicles? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that our roads, bridges and car parks remain safe, as well as around the potentially more serious issues such as accidental damage that may occur from heavier vehicles? Has any assessment been carried out where these new weight limits have been introduced, in other countries, in terms of their impact on the highways infrastructure? The Minister referred to this operating in Europe. Has there been an impact on roads, where it is already operating?

Local authorities are coming under increasing pressure regarding the provision of more charging points. Presently, there is insufficient funding available to provide these. For domestic and commercial vehicles, the successful transformation to more sustainable transport is dependent on the distribution of alternative fuel sources that they depend on, whether that be charging points or other alternative fuel sources. It seems that far too little attention is being given to this. Can the Minister comment on whether her colleagues in the DfT are consulting with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about how this deficit in charging facilities and alternative fuel sources can be met?

Lastly, when these regulations were discussed in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport referred to the development of lighter technology which would not impose the additional weight burdens on our roads. He did not give any timescales for these improvements. I appreciate that with any technology, it is difficult to estimate how quickly it will develop significantly, but can the Minister give us any further information about discussions between the DfT and the industry in relation to developments in this respect?

I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for their contributions to the debate this evening. I will answer as many of their questions as I possibly can although I am already aware that there is one or two I cannot. Therefore, as ever, a letter will be forthcoming.

I do not have any information on the first issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised about the double decker bus that she went on. They are not covered by these regulations. It is quite interesting that, in my many years as buses Minister, it was not something that came up in my discussions. I am assuming that the issue has been fixed and that the batteries are sufficiently light such that they fall under the standard regulations. If that is not the case, I will write to the noble Baroness.

One of the other things worth mentioning—this is where the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, finished—is the question of where we are and where we are going to be. It is still very early doors on this. There are not significant numbers of these vehicles circulating. We are trying to make a small change to encourage more people to take them up. I am sure that the noble Baroness has seen things such as the zero-emission road freight demonstrators, into which we are investing £200 million. Those sorts of things are the trials to encourage these sorts of vehicles to take to the road. It is very early in their development but we think that we are getting slightly ahead of the game by ensuring that this is in place. There are some logistics companies operating their own trials with these kinds of vehicles because they can charge them within their depots. I suspect that, in five years’ time, when we do the post-implementation review, we will be able to establish with greater certainty what the demand and pick-up rate look like.

It is also the case that this does not apply to vehicles that normally operate at 44 tonnes because, as the noble Baroness will know, that is the standard in the industry. It does have slight limitations but that limitation is not really fundamental in that we are not going to go over 44 tonnes. This means that the issues raised about increased road wear, the impact on bridges and training generally fall away, to my mind: the roads and bridges that we have already deal with 44 tonnes and these are all going to be less than 44 tonnes. The increase in road wear correlates to a one-fourth power of the weight on the axles: whatever the weight of the axle, you get a times four increase, or a power of four increase, in terms of the road wear. Again, though, we are not changing the weight there.

The point is that we are not going over the current limitations and, as I said at the outset, the numbers of these are still very small in the context of the tens of thousands of trucks that are out there. I do not see that there is a significant case for the wear and tear of roads; nor do I see that there would be significant issues for bridges at all because there will be plenty of other trucks going over that are heavier.

In terms of training, any trucker who is driving one of these new trucks will have been trained up to 44 tonnes anyway. They will probably need new training to operate the vehicle but we do not anticipate that there will be a significant change for driving. They will be used to driving heavier trucks and will probably have been doing it for a long time.

In terms of the infrastructure rollout, it is the case that goods vehicles are slightly behind the private car sector. As one can imagine, they are much more difficult to decarbonise. However, we are pushing forward and working with the industry in various forums that we have set up, such as the Freight Energy Forum, to think about what sort of infrastructure the industry needs and where it is going to need it. We will publish a zero-emission HGV infrastructure strategy in due course; that is being worked on at this moment in time. That will set out how we will charge the vehicles when we get them on the road.

I do not agree that there was a delay in bringing forward this SI. While the consultation was at the end of summer in 2021, there would have been analysis of the consultation and ministerial decision-making, then you get into the world of pain that is getting lawyers drafting and figuring out which law they will be drafting against. Statutory instruments take a surprisingly long time from the moment of intention—saying, “Yes, let’s do this—to actually bringing it before the House. We have to make sure that they are right. I am always slightly surprised but, actually, this is a “business as usual” instrument. I do not think that there is a pressing need for it because it is not as if we have thousands of these vehicles desperate to go on the road. However, doing this is worth while. I am grateful for the support of both noble Baronesses for this instrument.

Motion agreed.

My Lords, that concludes the business of the Grand Committee this afternoon. The Committee stands adjourned. If I may say so, it is immaculate timing because I think that we will be needed in the Chamber very shortly.

Committee adjourned at 6.55 pm.