THE SNP Government has been accused of a “catastrophic failure” after concerns raised about a lorry driver shortage five years ago were ignored – now putting Scotland’s £85 billion export industry at risk.

It is believed up to 100,000 driver vacancies now exist across the UK – exacerbated by the pandemic causing disruption to qualification process and Brexit impacts on the workforce. The situation has been blamed for food shortages in supermarkets. 

But SNP ministers have sat on warnings of a looming crisis to Scotland’s economy since 2016.

Last week, SNP MP David Linden blamed the impending crisis on Boris Johnson’s “botched Brexit deal”.

But a report drawn up by Skills Development Scotland in 2016, before any impacts of Brexit were felt, warned Scottish ministers that “there is currently a shortage of drivers”, adding that “this situation will continue unless action is taken”.

In 2019, an evidence report by Scottish Government officials revealed a lack of infrastructure within Scotland to export goods and a heavy reliance on produce being driven by lorry to either Heathrow or Kent in order to be shipped overseas.

That stark report, published before the pandemic, highlighted a lack of cold storage facilities at Scotland’s airports – with the only permanent facility being based at Glasgow – as well as a catalogue of issues at Scotland’s sea ports.

The reliance on infrastructure south of the Border could even hamper the Scottish Government’s ambition to become an independent nation and rejoin the European Union.

A former SNP MSP who has campaigned to bring about action has warned that his former colleagues simply ignored the lorry driver crisis five years ago.

Chic Brodie, who now heads the Scotia Future party, said the situation is now “very serious” for Scottish businesses.

Mr Brodie is calling on the Scottish Government to do more to encourage people to become lorry drivers and set up export infrastructure within Scotland.

READ MORE: Letters: Salute the forgotten heroes of the pandemic, the HGV drivers

No infrastructure

He said: “We really need to build that export infrastructure. Unless we start seriously to grow exports, Scotland’s economy is going to die. Let’s assume we have independence and we join Europe again – we have no export infrastructure in Scotland. We would still have to go across the border at Carlisle, drive all the way down to south-east England and do a whole lot of paperwork again.

“Notwithstanding the independence aspect, we should be looking at our eastern seaboard ports and seeing how we export goods to parts of Scandinavia – it would speed things up for companies, not to mention the climate aspect of it. It’s an open goal.”

The 2016 report by Skills Development Scotland pointed out that “demand for haulier services has increased in recent years and is expected to continue to grow”, adding “the sector is often seen as a last resort with limited career pathways”.

From speaking to those working in the industry, the report concluded that “the combination of drivers retiring and new drivers is currently resulting in a shortage of drivers and will continue to do so if not addressed”.

The document recommended that “the Government should provide financial assistance for licence acquisitions to attract more people into the sector” along with a host of initiatives to boost the number of lorry drivers.

But the lack of lorry drivers does not just impact on Scotland’s haulage sector.
A report published in 2019, after the Brexit vote, gave a stark warning to ministers about the over-reliance to Scotland’s exports on infrastructure in England.

The Scottish Government report raised alarm bells over a driver shortage two years ago , labelling the situation “fairly severe” and putting the number at around 45,000 across the UK. The document set out that “EU markets are currently mostly served by road freight, not air, and non-EU drink and frozen products mostly carried in containers by sea”.

It adds that ports at Grangemouth and Greenock “have capacity to handle more container traffic, potentially handling some of the traffic that currently travels to English ports by rail and road”.

But the Government officials add that “all non-EU-bound containers moved from Scottish ports are transhipped at Rotterdam, Liverpool, Felixstowe or elsewhere”, meaning “some resilience risks remain even if the British port of exit is changed”.

A ferry service from Rosyth to Zeebrugge was axed in 2018 but “the inflexibility of its relatively infrequent service”, particularly for fresh seafood produce heading to markets, meant this route resulted in “longer travel time than driving south and using a short crossing” with the route branded “ill-equipped to meet the strict time demands of Scottish seafood exports” .

Exports of Scottish seafood are heavily reliant on goods being first transported to south-east England before making it overseas – with the Channel Tunnel used for exporting to Europe and Heathrow for other global markets.

The Herald: Chic BrodieChic Brodie

‘No alternative’

THE pre-Covid report warns that “given the importance of road transport in the supply chain, the standard of infrastructure is critical”. It adds that “there is no current alternative route” for seafood arriving at the Boulogne market in France without travelling south and through the Channel Tunnel “without the shipment being late”.

James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, has issued a warning over a “chronic shortage of lorry drivers”, adding that “driver shortages have been an issue for a while” but have been exacerbated by both Brexit and the pandemic, leading to a “perfect storm”.

He added: “Without the wheels in our supply chain, things can start going wrong very quickly.”

The 2019 report highlighted that only a small amount of Scottish seafood is exported to non-EU countries directly from Scottish airports.

It adds: “Among Scottish airports, only Glasgow has any refrigeration infrastructure in place to store chilled produce prior to its export.

“There have also been discussions in the past about utilising Prestwick Airport for seafood airfreight, but these have not been pursued to any conclusion.”

The Government document recommends that investment in airport storage capacity “needs to be considered alongside an export aviation strategy to drive demand for the facilities through increased flights and destinations”.

Edinburgh Airport has now drafted in Conan Busby from East Midlands and Stansted airports to oversee its new cargo strategy.

It is thought that refrigeration facilities are being considered as part of the blueprint, which could be up and running within the next few years. But any plans have needed to be re-evaluated during the pandemic as international routes from Edinburgh have become less secure with aviation being hit hard by the pandemic.
The Scottish Government has been criticised for its inaction in drawing up a strategy to recruit more lorry drivers and build export infrastructure in Scotland.

READ MORE: Ineos accused of 'greenwashing' after Grangemouth carbon capture and storage plans revealed

‘Catastrophic failure’

SCOTTISH Labour’s finance spokesman, Daniel Johnson, said: “This is yet another example of the SNP’s catastrophic failure to invest in Scotland’s skills and infrastructure.

“To blame Brexit as the sole reason for the shortage of drivers is simply craven nonsense. It has been the SNP’s inaction that has left Scotland’s economy defenceless and for that they must take responsibility.”

Scottish Conservative shadow transport secretary, Liam Kerr, said: “This is all too typical of the SNP. They are seeking to blame Westminster and the UK Government for this situation, when the reality is that they’ve known about the shortage of drivers for more than five years.

“Serious questions must be answered by SNP ministers as to what measures, if any, they have taken to try and ensure more drivers were hired in recent years.
“They have also failed to invest in significant infrastructure upgrades, which has meant Scotland has missed out on being used for trade opportunities.

“Instead of ramping up their grievance machine, the SNP should have been focused on addressing the concerns highlighted in these reports and working constructively with the UK Government to address shortages in HGV drivers.”

The Scottish Government was approached for comment but had not provided one as we went to press.