'There is a need for van operators to have a voice'

The penny dropped for the Freight Transport Association around nine years ago.

Many of its members, all operators of heavy goods vehicles, also ran vans of 3.5-tonnes and below as part of their fleet operations.

Yet, while vans made up a large, and growing, proportion of vehicles on the road, they were not represented under the FTA’s rules, working parties or policies.

That all changed with the creation of the van utilities working group, rapidly followed by construction, essential services and local authorities.

FTA membership now includes one million vans – a third of the total UK fleet. Some of its newer members do not run HGVs at all, they are van/car fleets only.

But they get full recognition. Growing pressure from European Union legislators and UK Government has accentuated the need for the FTA to support, lobby and represent its van members.

“We recognised that they have very different cultures and there is a need for van operators to have a voice – for issues relating to regulation, government policy and suppliers,” says James Hookham, FTA director of policy and communications.

Last year, the FTA, together with a working party of leading van fleet operators, launched the Van Excellence Code (Fleet News, November 11, 2010). The first members will be announced this month – the FTA expects to accredit 50-60 by the end of the year.

Eighty companies have registered interest so far with around 40 requesting the half-day audit.

But the true measure of success will be the number of vans that come under the programme, which is why the FTA is allowing non-members to sign up to the code.

It hopes this will attract smaller van operators, who may see no benefit in joining a trade association.

Not surprisingly, given the attempts to appeal to the wider van sector, the Government has made positive noises of support.

“They are keen because they are reluctant to regulate,” says Hookham. “We also hope to carry it into Brussels and grow it from there.”

He adds: “If there was regulation it would apply to everyone – so it’s in everyone’s interest to get as wide a community as possible interested.”

At last year’s Fleet Van conference, 91% of delegates agreed that Britain’s van fleet operators needed to be more professional while 84% said they would consider signing up to Van Excellence.

In addition to encouraging sign up to the code, the FTA has three key priorities for 2011.

1. Alternative fuels and the Operator’s Licence

According to Hookham, vans adapted to run on alternative fuels, whether natural gas or electric, tip into O-Licence territory because their gross vehicle weight exceeds 3.5-tonnes.

The Department for Transport is looking to determine whether this is a potential barrier to companies adopting ‘greener’ technology.

The FTA is making the case for an exemption and is talking to fleets before setting out its proposals.

“If you take a vehicle plated at 3.5 tonnes and replace the engine with gas, it becomes 3.9 tonnes,” says Hookham. “This isn’t an issue if the operator has an O-Licence already, but for others, such as home delivery firms operating from different depots, there are complications.”

He claims it is already acting as a barrier to many companies considering alternative fuels. “If a 400kg allowance for alternative fuel vehicles gets rid of the blockage as an interim measure, this will keep the market going in its move to green.”

The FTA is hopeful of an agreement in principle in the first half of this year to enable a speedy resolution. If legislation is required, it could delay things by a further six months.


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