23 June 2023
Volumetric Concrete Mobile Plants

Jesse Norman, Minister of State (Decarbonisation and Technology) at the Department for Transport, replies on behalf of the Roads Minister to a Westminster Hall debate on volumetric concrete mobile plants.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

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.

Peter Grant 

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?

Jesse Norman 

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.

Mr Carmichael 

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?

Jesse Norman 

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.

Dr Whitford 

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.

Jesse Norman 

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.