Cabotage – What is it and how might it change?

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We are all familiar with today’s severe supply chain problems including the acute shortage of lorry drivers. The underlying issues will likely continue for a considerable period of time.

Often there is a reference to the term ‘cabotage’ that might soon be relaxed, whilst the driver shortage is alleviated. But, what does this mean and what possible changes are pending?

What is Cabotage?

To transport goods an operator’s licence is required in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland. To transport goods by road outside GB and NI this must also authorise international operations. Non-UK operators similarly require licences for their own country and to operate abroad.

However, if a UK operator wishes to work outside the UK – or a non-UK operator wishes to work in the UK – can they not only carry out international trips into and out of other countries but also do domestic work in that country? Yes – to an extent.

This domestic work is ‘cabotage’ – where foreign operators carry out domestic goods operations outside their home country within another. For example, a Dutch operator might transport goods into the UK to Norwich (an international journey into GB), pick up a new load delivered to Birmingham (a domestic journey), take a new load from Birmingham to Bristol (domestic), and then carry a load from Bristol out of the UK to Rotterdam (international). The domestic legs are ‘cabotage’.

Cabotage is restricted, however – otherwise, it would mean any foreign goods operator could simply operate as a domestic operator, without a licence for that country and in competition with domestic transport operators. It would be a ‘free-for-all’.

Restrictions started long before Brexit, even though members of the EU. Non-UK operators could previously make three cabotage trips within seven days before exiting a country.

Now, under the Brexit UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), non-UK operators can only carry out two cabotage trips here within a seven day period and then must leave. UK operators can only make one cabotage trip or two cross border trips between EU countries after the international journey out of the UK before their return leg within seven days. (Northern Ireland operators can also undertake two journeys within Ireland). This restriction is part of the reason there is great unhappiness in the music sector reliant on haulage for multi-leg music and big concert tours in the EU, now no longer possible as before with significant consequences.

Cabotage – Government consultation

HM Government has just conducted a very swift consultation, proposing non-UK operators be permitted to carry out cabotage with an unrestricted number of domestic journeys within a two week period before exiting the UK (NB contrasting the current maximum permitted two cabotage trips within seven days). It also proposes this be temporary, though possibly for up to six months.

There is no linked relaxation sought or requested for UK operators carrying out domestic work inside the EU.

The ostensible aim of HM Government is to permit this legal relaxation during a bridging period whilst the driver shortage is being addressed, and so would allow more lorry deliveries to be carried out by non-UK operators. It is not universally welcomed by operators or trade associations, being regarded as damaging for the UK road transport sector and UK-based drivers. Further, it is pointed out that UK operators have some spare fleet capacity, with vehicles stood up due to the lack of drivers, not lorries.

It is unclear what formal changes in the law would follow: it may simply be the case that the current cabotage rules will simply not be enforced, given there will be no limit to the number of domestic journeys, though the maximum period of stay in the UK would be two weeks and would seemingly need to be policed.

When any changes are announced, an update will be provided about these potential changes that would likely be implemented later this autumn.

Our Road Transport law team can help you

Ashtons Legal provides dedicated, niche advice in the area of road transport law, including operator licensing as well as representation in Court and at Traffic Commissioner Public Inquiry hearings.

For more information about this or any other aspects of road transport law please get in touch with us through our online enquiry form or by calling 0330 404 0768. We would be delighted to help you and your business.


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