Martin Vander Weyer

Is it time for a Dad’s Army of lorry drivers?

Is it time for a Dad’s Army of lorry drivers?
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Here’s a patriotic proposal: let’s form a Dad’s Army of lorry drivers, of which the Road Haulage Association reckons there’s currently a 100,000 shortage. Daily headlines tell us this is causing supply disruptions that have led to reduced factory output and half-empty supermarket shelves, slowing recovery and contributing to the blip in inflation.

We need Walmington-on-Sea’s trusty platoon at the wheel to compensate for the million-plus exodus of foreign-born workers that has afflicted the economy from hospitality (see this week’s last item) to fruit farms, slaughterhouses and construction sites — compounded in haulage by delays to thousands of HGV tests for new applicants last year. Right now, of course, all such problems are exacerbated by pingdemic chaos.

The only solution for fleet owners is to offer rising pay deals, to the extent that life in the cab with a Burger King meal and a copy of Top Gear magazine is beginning to look really quite attractive. At up to £18.41 an hour, plus a £2,000 ‘golden hello’ from Marks & Spencer, Aldi or other desperate hirers, it’s a lot more remunerative than, say, writing book reviews. And it must certainly be more fun than being brutalised as a graduate trainee in a City investment bank, where starting salaries have hit £75,000 but working days are so long and holidays so frowned-upon that the equivalent hourly rate barely beats trucking.

What’s more, paperwork-wise, it’s probably easier to escape abroad at the wheel of a 44-tonne artic than on a tourist flight or in a family car. ‘Join the army and see the world,’ posters used to say: where’s the truck-force recruiting office?

More dividends please

The Bank of England has belatedly removed what it called the ‘extraordinary guardrails on shareholder distributions’ it imposed on UK banks as a means of preserving their capacity to lend and absorb losses during the pandemic. They had effectively been ordered not to pay dividends or make share buybacks last year — and when that clamp came off, they were told to limit payouts to 25 per cent of quarterly profits. Now they’re free at last, HSBC is the latest to restore an interim dividend on the strength of half-year profits double those of a year ago.

The fact is that most banks are emerging from the pandemic better capitalised than they went in. With hindsight, that makes the dividend restriction look pointless, other than as a gesture to appease public hostility towards the general principle that investors are entitled to regular rewards for risking their capital.

In a healthy financial system, banks have ready access to new capital through public markets because they are seen as blue-chip investments that pay returns comparable to utilities. But that has not been the case since 2008 — and the threat of repeated political interference in payouts to shareholders makes them even more unattractive. As I’ve argued before, it would be better for capitalism as a whole if central banks positively encouraged banks to pay dividends, whenever they can afford them.

Apples to nuts

Takeovers continue apace, provoking much debate around ‘national interest’. Military chiefs have expressed alarm at a £2.6 billion bid for Ultra Electronics — which makes devices that protect naval vessels — by Cobham, another UK manufacturer that’s already owned by US private equity. Likewise, ministers are reportedly taking an ‘active interest’ in a £6.3 billion bid by Parker Hannifin of the US for Meggitt, a Coventry-based supplier of components to BAE and Rolls-Royce. Slim chance that either deal will actually be blocked, against the tide of US money. The real question is whether assurances from the buyers about protecting British jobs and defence secrets will be worth the paper they’re written on.

Meanwhile, the Anglo-Canadian Weston family has put Selfridges up for sale at £4 billion. No obvious national interest there, perhaps, other than a concern not to see Oxford Street’s greatest emporium wrecked by private--equity pirates. If the Qataris pop it into their bag alongside Harrods, which they already own, no one will bat an eyelid. Far more controversial would be a buyer from mainland China — but that’s where in normal times many of the store’s big-spending customers come from, after all, and theirs is another tide of money we find hard to resist.

Finally, however, a deal to make us proud: the £15.7 million acquisition of the UK’s second larger apple grower — a fifth-generation Kent family enterprise called Bardsley England — by Camellia plc, a new name to me which turns out to be an Aim-listed, Maidstone-based international food conglomerate descended from 19th--century tea traders. Indian and Kenyan tea is still part of Camellia’s range, along with avocados, blueberries and macadamia nuts from elsewhere. We struggle to hold our own in

hi-tech industries and watch one trophy asset after another pass into foreign hands. But we’ve always been good farmers and global traders, and our food supplies need to be at least as secure as our defence systems. This apples-to-nuts combo looks like a flagship British company for the new era.

Resilience deflated

A report from a London reader who a year ago sent high praise for a resilient neighbourhood Italian restaurateur offering a superb lockdown home-delivery service plus free pizzas for the NHS. Dropping in for supper this week, she finds him uncharacteristically ‘deflated’, because loyal staff who returned to Italy can’t get back into the UK, while the English youngsters he recruited instead have left abruptly to go to music festivals. A job ad in The Caterer used to attract ten applications per day; now he’s had none in a month. I’ll be interested to hear how your own favourite local eateries are coping:

martin@spectator.co.uk.