Beware demerit points on social licence

When the ALC Forum 2017 was held in Melbourne at the beginning of March, it was remarkable to see the extent to which urban encroachment emerged as a consistent theme in discussions among participants.

No matter what competitive tensions there may otherwise be between the various modes of freight delivery, operators across road, rail, air and port facilities are in furious agreement that poorly planned new residential development constitutes a growing threat to our sector.

There is also a growing recognition among freight operators that, like many other facilities in a modern economy, freight infrastructure needs a ‘social licence’ to operate. In other words, our ability to deliver better outcomes is contingent on building legitimacy, credibility and trust in the minds of the community at large.

In some respects this is frustrating because many of us inherently understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between good outcomes for freight efficiency and good outcomes for the community.

However, the simple truth is that unless the freight and logistics industry can better highlight the important contribution we make, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to wage and win battles on important issues like freight corridor preservation and heavy vehicle access to freight facilities.

We are already seeing some instances where the freight sector is losing out to an appetite among governments for greater residential development in areas not previously used for such purposes.

During the ALC Forum, we heard the CEO of NSW Ports, Marika Calfas, discuss this phenomenon in relation to land around Port Botany.

This facility was originally constructed in the 1960s as a means of removing industrial activity from Sydney’s residential areas. Yet over the last 50 years, the zoning of adjacent land has been reclassified, firstly from industrial to commercial, and now increasingly from commercial to residential. The result is that there are now residences located a mere 200 metres from the entrance to the port.

Of course, as this type of thing continues, the newly arrived residents begin to exert political pressure on local and state governments to impose increasingly stringent limitations on access to, and the operation of, freight facilities. Given that residents vote and freight does not, governments regrettably favour residential interests.

As a result, this form of urban encroachment is preventing our industry from extracting maximum usage value from existing freight infrastructure, before having to plan and build new facilities. This is a less-than-ideal outcome for taxpayers and industry alike.
Recently, the ALC made a submission to Infrastructure Victoria regarding its Discussion Paper on the location of Victoria’s second container port.

We were particularly keen to point out that the recent lease of the Port of Melbourne clearly implies an operational life of 50 years for the existing facility. Certainly, investments made by logistics industry participants – including operators of heavy vehicles – anticipate that this will be the case.

To achieve that outcome and to extract maximum value from the asset will essentially require a trebling of the port’s capacity, to between seven and eight million containers per year.

If that’s going to occur, the Port of Melbourne will need to operate 24 hours a day, seven days per week. That includes allowing truck access to move freight in and out of the port at night.

In that regard, the State Government’s plan to house around 80,000 people at Fisherman’s Bend – literally on the doorstep of the port – requires very careful planning consideration for the needs of freight.

Under no circumstances can the possibility of a second Victorian port down the track become an excuse not to invest in infrastructure in the vicinity of the existing facility, including noise mitigation measures and the reinforcement of roads and bridges required to facilitate its efficient operation.

Equally, the freight and logistics industry must not allow others to impose demerit points on its social licence. It’s all too easy for self-styled community activists to portray heavy vehicles as the villains of the piece, and demand they be banned from certain routes.

It’s up to us to make it clear to government and to local communities alike the dire consequences that will result from such knee-jerk policy responses, and from the failure to properly invest in freight infrastructure.

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