Britain's hauliers plan how to bring the country to a halt again

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The Independent Online

The men who brought Britain to a standstill are casually dressed. Standing beneath the palm trees next to the hotel pool, they sip their drinks in the sunshine and gather in little groups to chat, heads bobbing up and down in steady nods of agreement.

The men who brought Britain to a standstill are casually dressed. Standing beneath the palm trees next to the hotel pool, they sip their drinks in the sunshine and gather in little groups to chat, heads bobbing up and down in steady nods of agreement.

There is only one real topic of conversation here in Marbella, as there was in the hotel bar last night and will probably be this evening at the Spanish Night ("Costumes provided but please wear black trousers and a white shirt.") It is no secret, and every few moments the subject that consumes them breaks out above the gentle murmur of chatter - the level of tax on fuel and what these men will try to do about it.

The occasion is the annual conference of the Road Haulage Association, the 10,000-member body that represents the industry. A month has passed since the crisis that saw large parts of Britain paralysed by blockades of oil terminals and depots by protesters, many of them members of this association.

The Government, caught out by the speed at which the protests spread and the level of public support for such militancy, was given 60 days to come up with a solution to the problem. Should they not do so by 13 November, the response of the protesters will depend largely on the conversations being held this weekend over drinks beneath the palm trees in Andalucia. As if to underline the significance of the occasion, the union leader Bill Morris, the Government's go-between with the lorry drivers who was instrumental in solving last month's dispute, is here.

Clive Hoyland organised a go-slow drive along the M62 during the crisis, which caused chaos in Leeds, and he is adamant that he would do so again. "I don't want to have to roll out again, no one wants to, but we would have no choice. I set my company up 27 years ago with my brother, and now we employ 70 people. I am not going to sit back and watch that get taken away.

"People are as determined now as they were during the protest. I was talking to hauliers in the North-east yesterday and they want to know what is going to happen after the 60 days, and I told them, 'We never said we would not go out again.' I think that it is a case of 'Watch this space.' That is how I would leave it."

Mr Hoyland is among the more outspoken - at least in public - of the Road Haulage Association's senior figures. The organisation, led by its chairman, John Bridge, and chief executive, Roger King, has had to play a clever game and satisfy its members who supported the protests and those who were opposed.

But the men representing what they would admit is anunloved industry are well aware that they hold real power. Exactly what members might do in a future protest is unclear, but everyone recognises that they will do something. Their options are to resume the blockades and slowconvoys on trunk roads, or to widen the protest to new targets. There has been talk of blockading food depots. As one delegate put it with barely concealed glee: "We are the strongest industry in Britain - who else could have brought Britain to a halt?"

Everyone here can recite without a slip the figures that make them so prepared to repeat the protests: tax on fuel is the highest in the world; fuel costs more in Britain than anywhere else in Europe; 48p spent on every litre of diesel goes to the Chancellor; the percentage of a haulier's operating costs taken up by fuel has doubled in 18 months ... the list goes on and on. And on.

But away from the strategy talk during long, late-night sessions in the smoky bar, the delegates make a convincing case that the crisis has left many members with their backs against the wall.

The conference itself is a case in point. Every year the association gets away to discuss the issues affecting the industry, devise strategies to deal with them and have a bit of fun with some decent weather. Last year they went to Cyprus, pointing out defensively that it is cheaper to hold their conference somewhere on the Mediterranean than in a British resort.

But this year, though they have the usual workshops and guest speakers, including Mr Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and Jack Rowell, the former England rugby union coach, talking about "partnerships", there is more of an edge in the air. The number attending is down, and there is such concern about the state of the industry that for the first time in more than a decade the decision has been taken to cancel next year's conference.

"I think it is fair to say that the industry has never faced a more difficult challenge than it is facing at the moment," explained John Evans, a big West Country man who operates a fleet of about 120 lorries from north Devon, as he sips a small beer. "I have been in the business all my life and this is the worse I have known it by a long way. I am all right, I can go to the bank and ask for a loan if I need to, but the smaller man, who might just have one truck, cannot do that."

These smaller operators made up the bulk of last month's protesters. But many larger operators were also willing to get involved, and make clear that they will do so again if they don't get what they want.

"I feel sorry for the Labour Party," said Stan Robinson, the 1999 Haulier of the Year, who joined the protesters in the Midlands for three nights. "The last escalation in prices was because of the market price. But [if nothing is done] the protesters will be back. We don't know what will happen, but something will - there will be protests in a big way."