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The Shifting Status of Mobile Mixers in the UK

In the United Kingdom, a debate about the regulation of volumetric mixers is growing heated, and could have significant consequences concerning the future viability of on-site concrete mixing in Britain.

The Mineral Products Association is a British trade association for the aggregates, asphalt, cement, concrete, agricultural lime, industrial lime, mortar and silica sand industries. The MPA is appealing for urgent action on a proposal from the government’s Department for Transport that calls for a tightening of regulations for mobile mixers in the country. In a March statement the MPA claimed concrete suppliers using mobile mixers “take advantage of loopholes in the law”, calling for the end of a “free ride for volumetrics”.

Nigel Jackson, chief executive of the MPA, said “volumetrics are HGVs [heavy goods vehicles] which deliver ready-mixed concrete. MPA has been calling for legislation to level the regulatory playing field between volumetrics and HGVs, such as truck-mixers, for several years and we are very pleased that Government is now moving on this issue.”

The proposal in question stems from a 2014 report on cyclist safety that, among other things, observed the relation between cyclist collisions and heavy goods vehicles. The resulting assessment and consulations examined a disparity between guidelines governing volumetric mixers and those of customary drum mixers. The Construction Index explains:

“Mobile batching plants, also called volumetric mixers, are historically defined as engineering plant rather than heavy goods vehicles. The justification for this is that they supposedly spend more time on construction sites off-highway than on the road. This means that like mobile cranes they do not have to have annual roadworthiness (MoT) tests and are not subject to the same weight restrictions as HGVs. Other aspects of the regulatory regime are also lighter, including driver hours.”

A more detailed look at the regulatory requirements can be found here.

Weighing In On Weight Limits

While all involved in the discussion seem to agree on annual safety inspections, other facets of the proposal are much more contentious. The Batched on Site Association (BSA)—a  lobby group representing volumetric mixer concrete suppliers—has taken a firm stance in opposition to a regulatory clampdown, specifically in regard to operating weight, warning of a severe negative economic impact. Volumetric mixers represent a notably growing industry in the UK, with over 700 mixers representing about 200 business, 3,000 jobs, and 10% of all the concrete poured in the country—all of which may be in jeopardy in the face of the more stringent regulations.

BSA Chariman Chris Smith asserts “the Batched on Site Association works in close consultation with the Department for Transport to constantly improve the safety, service, and environmental footprint of the sector. However, we have serious concerns about the government’s current consideration to reduce the operating weight of these machines to 32 tonnes. This would significantly reduce capabilities to the point of putting the majority of operators out of business, threatening a £210m sector of the UK economy that has grown even in-spite of the recession, and currently accounts for an estimated 3,150 jobs.”

Nigel Jackson, chief executive for the MPA, dismisses these claims as exaggerated: “In practice, volumetric concrete mixers are an important part of the concrete supply mix and are particularly geared up to supply the smaller loads required by many customers. When subject to HGV regulation they will continue to have a key place in the market and such regulation would create no net loss of economic activity.”

Anti-Competitive Legislation?

The British Aggregates Association has also passed judgement on the issue, disagreeing with the MPA and particularly condemning license upgrades for volumetric mixer drivers.

The proposed change in license requirements for drivers of volumetric mixers would include a restriction on working hours, and the BAA argues that such a restriction would wipe out small business owners that operate their own mixers. For single mixer owner-operators, says the BAA, reduced work hours will make it impossible to finance, operate, and maintain their vehicles. Viewed this way, those in support of the BAA argue that the proposed regulations will create unfair markets and cartels:

“All of the major quarry and ready-mixed companies are now owned by the cement industry. The current call for additional regulation may, says the BAA, be more about competition concerns than health and safety. Volumetrics provide a rare point of entry into a market which is dominated by multi-nationals. However, the BAA says it appears that the recently developed ability of small operators to enter this market is resented in certain quarters.”

“Not only have volumetrics increased customer choice and availability, but they have opened up a hitherto restricted market to some much needed competition,” adds BAA director Robert Durward, “a degree of additional regulation would be appropriate but it must be sensitively applied.”

While claims of anti-competitive practices are bold, there may be credence to the idea that large, traditional concrete supplier companies are entering the volumetric market like never before. The BSA points out that “during the past 5 years the concrete industry has undergone considerable change, with increasing demand for Volumetrics. Multinational readymix companies are expanding their fleets of Volumetric machines, while 87% of independent Volumetric operators have experienced turnover growth in the past five years, and 93% expect turnover to grow over the next five years.”

For Nigel Jackson and the MPA, though, issues of fairness and safety remain at the forefront of the discussion. “Both ready-mixed concrete truck mixers and volumetric concrete mixers are HGVs operating on public roads and should be subject to the same regulations as any HGV”, explains Jackson, “at a time when the construction supply chain is heavily engaged in initiatives to improve road safety, particularly for vulnerable road users such as cyclists, it is simply indefensible for Government not to regulate as a matter of urgency.”

It remains to be seen which direction the debate will extend from here. The Department of Transport carried out a call for responses to the proposed changes, with the results published last week, and a decision expected in late 2015.