Why the Government must not walk back plans to create a level playing field for concrete mixers
Concrete is essential to our economy. Every year, around 15 million cubic metres of ready-mixed concrete is supplied in Great Britain, helping to build the homes, commercial buildings, and infrastructure projects on which our future prosperity relies.
This raises the question: how do we get concrete to these important construction sites? There’s more than one way, and historically, they’ve been treated very differently. The Government is currently consulting on whether it should proceed with plans to ensure they’re subject to the same rules, and it’s vital that ministers stay the course and create a level playing field for all concrete mixers.
You might ask why there isn’t a level playing field in the first place. Surely it’s common sense that all trucks would get treated the same way.
The problem started with a quirk in how certain vehicles are regulated. While concrete mixer trucks with rotating drums are treated like any other HGVs, the other main type of truck – volumetric concrete mixers, or VCMs – was historically treated as a kind of factory on wheels, legally classed as engineering plant.
This is because, instead of being mixed at a local concrete plant before being delivered to the site, VCMs transport the ingredients to the site and then mix the concrete there. This loophole meant that, until 2018, VCMs were extremely under-regulated: they were exempt from rules on driver hours and records, and HGV weight limits didn’t apply to them.
This under-regulation had dangerous consequences. According to a Commons Transport Select Committee report in 2014, five out of six VCMs stopped by the Industrial HGV Task Force unit suffered from mechanical defects, and half were either overloaded or had an insecure load.
In 2018, the Government stepped in to bring the regulation of VCMs into line with rotating concrete mixers and other HGVs. However, in order to give VCM operators time to adjust their fleet to the new rules, normal HGV weight limits would not apply to them until 2028. In the meantime, a higher transitional weight limit would apply.
Five years on, concerns are growing that the Government might be having second thoughts. Following a loud campaign by some advocates for VCM operators, ministers have issued a call for evidence to determine whether they proceed with equal weight limits in 2028, or not.
The Department for Transport has even developed a couple of highly bureaucratic alternative proposals: one where VCMs can continue operating at higher weight limits provided they give the authorities two working days’ notice of all movements where the VCM will be laden heavier than the normal weight limit; and one where VCMs can continue operating at a higher weight limit provided they are under 12 years old and the operator is part of a special DVSA scheme.
These alternatives would solve nothing. They would keep operators of other mixer trucks at an unfair disadvantage compared to VCMs, while saddling VCM operators with more bureaucracy.
In reality, there is no good reason for the Government to change course. Both VCMs and rotating mixers have their benefits, but one is not inherently superior to the other – they operate in a competitive market, and the Government should set a level playing field for all types of mixers.
Unfortunately, the ongoing debate about this issue has led to myths and misconceptions about rotating mixers being spread. It has been asserted that, unlike VCMs, rotating mixers need to be accompanied by a pump truck, making them worse for road wear. This isn’t true: many sites don’t need concrete pumps at all, and many of those that do will have a single pump on site for the day or for the entire duration of the works.
Rotating mixers have also come in for unfair criticism over the fact that, because they need to complete their journeys before the concrete sets, there is a natural limit on the length of their journeys.
In reality, any increased road wear caused by the additional journeys made by rotating mixers pales in comparison to the road wear caused by the higher weight of a VCM operating under the current interim rules. Department for Transport analysis has estimated that if four-axle VCMs were allowed to continue operating at the higher 38.4 tonne limit, average road wear would increase by as much as 220% per vehicle.
Likewise, the carbon emissions caused by rotating mixers taking additional journeys is negligible. Emissions savings from transport only comprise 7% of the UK cement and concrete sector’s roadmap to net zero, and the difference in emissions between any given journey taken by a VCM versus a rotating mixer will vary wildly depending on the specific circumstances of that journey.
Unfairly punishing rotating mixer operators in favour of VCMs would do nothing meaningful to decarbonise the UK concrete sector. The real action the sector needs is access to CCUS, and a secure and affordable supply of clean fuels for cement plants, concrete plants, and vehicles – including both VCMs and rotating mixers.
VCMs and rotating mixers both have a part to play in the future of the UK concrete sector. Both are operated by small businesses up and down the country. Both are more practical and convenient to operate in different circumstances.
But it’s essential that the Government goes ahead with its plan to take its thumb off the scale, equalise the weight limits, and put all concrete trucks on a level playing field where they can compete fairly, and continue helping this country build the houses and infrastructure it needs.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.