Logistics and transport bind us all together

Don’t discount the social value of logistics, says Derek Halden

Postman Pat and Thomas the Tank Engine dont just deliver, they help bind us together. Picture: PA

Children who grow up with stories about characters such as Postman Pat and Thomas the Tank Engine learn how the business of logistics and transport interacts with local communities. People develop an affection for the Royal Mail and the railways in the UK partly through these stories, and modern logistics and transport has been seeking to achieve similarly effective community engagement in the places it serves.

Tightly knit communities are built from mutual trust. The local postal worker, railway station attendant and bus driver are just a few of the characters who can add value as they go about their daily business. Interactions between customers and staff are often very brief, when boarding a bus or signing for a package on the doorstep, and these many short interactions create a different place in the community from the longer and in-depth personalised contacts common in other sectors such as education and health. Our sector engages with more of society more of the time, and this can be used to great advantage to build stronger communities.

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Much of the growth in the sector in recent years has come from making more of each contact to help people and businesses achieve more. Transporting people and goods is just the start of the relationships that enable the sector to join the dots, making new local, national and global connections. Knowing who buys and sells what in each country or locality is sometimes more valuable than the physical transport business. Logistics and transport operators are reaching out through partnership agreements to define new terms of engagement with more partners. Maintenance of railway buildings, zero carbon supply chains, packaging operations and specialised high care passenger transport are just a few of the added value services creating new jobs and opportunities across Scotland.

One major operator, the Royal Mail, has been constrained in recent years by a focus on narrow efficiency targets in traditional markets. The loss of postbus services, and the centralisation of pick-up points for parcels have been symbols of this lack of community engagement, but equally important from the commercial perspective has been the lack of interest in partnerships with other freight and passenger carriers. Many parcel delivery providers could have partnered with the Royal Mail to improve the efficiency of doorstep delivery and reduce the number of vehicles locally.

Something needed to change, but critics of the Westminster government would say the Royal Mail was sold off into private ownership too cheaply. Partly due to public concern about this sale, the Scottish Government has proposed that Royal Mail be renationalised if there is a yes vote in September’s independence referendum. The priority given to this proposal has attracted interest within the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). Among our members there are strong supporters of independence and strong opponents, but most people agree that trust depends more on building partnerships than on any longer term change of ownership. If the government could clarify what goals it is seeking from nationalisation of the Royal Mail there may be ways to deliver these goals faster and across more companies through new partnership agreements.

The Royal Mail is not the only company needing investment in social goals. Better employment conditions, staff training, local noise or emissions reductions, and reducing the number of large vehicles on unsuitable roads are just a few goals where industry and government could help each other better. Building mutual trust could unlock substantial economic and social value. Projects like Lifting the Spirit – whereby transport authorities on Speyside are working closely with the whisky industry to deliver better freight transport solutions – should be the norm rather than the exception.

Many of the most successful current partnerships are between different companies, and require little public involvement, yet still deliver stronger societies. Logistics businesses have been partnering with local shops to create convenient parcel pick-up and drop-off points in every local high street across the country. This supports local shops by encouraging people to visit their high streets more often, and also helps the industry avoid the waste and inconvenience of making home deliveries at inconvenient times.

For many years CILT has supported bus and freight quality partnerships as the best way to manage joint working and build trust. Despite broad support for the principle of the partnerships, many are stuck at base camp, still exploring shared values, with little follow-through to firm contracts and joint funding. Regardless of the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, public and private sectors are better together.

If some of the energy, passion and funding devoted to discussions about ownership and control could be directed towards delivering shared goals through new contracts and partnerships, then the shared trust generated would help everyone. Public ownership can be the right solution for a few companies, but properly funded partnership working is needed across our sector where most people serve communities by working for private operators.

• Derek Halden is chair of the Scottish branch of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, www.dhc1.co.uk