IT’S possible that this past month, July 2019, will go down in sawmill history as one to forget.

One of the mainstays of sawmill life is a little seven-and-a-half-tonne truck. Not only is it used for deliveries, but also to keep the sawmill tidy. We only have a small yard and can be quickly overwhelmed with offcuts and sawdust. So, as well as making deliveries, the truck is constantly ferrying deliveries of sawdust to auction marts, stables and farms. With the driver away last month on holiday, I was the only individual with the necessary ‘cards’ qualified to drive. This meant starting at 4 a.m. and doing a couple of sawdust deliveries before returning to the mill at my usual time of 6.30 a.m., so I was mightily relieved when he returned.

In hindsight, by clearing the yard of sawdust, I’d done myself a huge favour as an impromptu visit by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) proved uneventful. Dust is the latest HSE stick with which to beat you and to not have it in any quantity was a relief, especially as the weather has been so hot and dry.

The little truck is now getting quite old and, despite being in good condition, reliable and regularly maintained, I knew that sooner or later all this would count for nothing as VOSA increases its surveillance of ‘old’ vehicles, regardless of mileage or condition. With this in mind I had reached the conclusion that sometime soon I would have to replace it. I had something slightly larger in mind, but this would require a driver with a full HGV licence which, employment wise, was a completely different proposition. I had recently hired a new driver who seemed determined to reverse into things every time he left the mill and left me with a constant trail of destruction. Gate posts, greenhouses, land rovers, electric gates and even the doctor’s house all quivered when this guy took to the wheel.

The cost in time and money was inhibitive, so I have now replaced him. The person I have in mind is currently operating the forklift and holds an HGV licence, but needs the CPC and Digi cards in order to be able to drive. I’ve been subjecting him to a series of tests which he has so far (without realising it) passed with flying colours. In addition, he’ll muck in with any task in the yard (which the previous driver wouldn’t do) and on attitude alone this is a huge improvement. With this in mind, a replacement vehicle is back on the agenda.

In the meantime, the existing truck is now being driven by a temporary guy who is past retirement age but whom I have offered to put through the HGV test as backup. Although he needs a job, he selflessly declined, which I thought was a very magnanimous gesture.

So, with all this going on and having had the existing truck recently MOT’d, safety checked and with a full workshop check-over, I thought nothing of sending it out on a job down the A1. When the driver reported he’d been pulled over by VOSA I wasn’t really concerned, until they slapped a prohibition notice on it; the reason being, a leaking brake actuator on the rear axle.

Anything else and I would have thought ‘bad luck’. However, having been around trucks for my entire life, I did feel the inspector had been unreasonable. Brake actuators have never changed and can be a little fickle at the best of times. They are designed to work on a constant pressure, i.e. you put your foot on the brake.

I’ve tested them in the past and, for whatever reason, when you ask someone to assist by pressing their foot on the brake, they respond by priming the brake pedal. If you do this and the actuator hasn’t returned to rest, then a small amount of air will leak.

So, under scrutiny, all you need is a nervous driver with a shaky leg, police cars with flashing blue lights, swarms of officials in shiny high-vis jackets muttering “rhubarb” and the scene is set! For a small business which relies on its key components, such as its delivery truck, what ensued was nothing short of disastrous. Strangely, despite the prohibition notice, the VOSA officials allowed the driver to complete his deliveries before taking the vehicle to a garage.

Had it been up to me, I would have fixed the problem there and then. However, they insisted that because I didn’t have the ‘correct’ facilities, it would have to go to a garage. Lack of mechanics meant that a week passed before a new actuator was fitted and then a fortnight passed before the VOSA official could come out and inspect it. Then he cancelled at the last minute and it was a month before the little truck got official clearance.

In the meantime, I bought a new one.

Trying to run a business like mine without a truck has not been easy. In fact, it’s been a hell of a month, but by employing hauliers for the bigger loads we’ve managed to get by. I feel particularly sorry for any small business trying to make a living involving a truck.

Saturday, believe it or not, is one of our most important days of the week. How we clean, maintain and organise the yard determines the success of the forthcoming week. Spending these valuable days stuck in a classroom, listening to someone drone on about something completely unrelated to the job I have to do, just so I can have a piece of paper with a CPC tick on it, is quite depressing. It’s almost a process of endurance, as I learn nothing. My mind wanders onto the important things I need to do: customers needing firewood; jobs at home; clearing sawdust; invoicing; jobs for the HSE; mountains of paperwork for VOSA; litigation from the council over the permit for the treatment tank they themselves said I don’t need . . . and yet here I am stuck in a classroom miles away listening to this drivel.

And wait, what’s this?

I now have to watch a documentary about immigration officials searching for illegal immigrants in Dover. That should be useful in rural Northumberland! We’ve even had a lesson on not loading sawlogs above the pins on a timber wagon as they may fall off. Apparently, you now have to sheet hay or straw. Imagine trying to do that 30 ft up on a windy day. I cannot begin to express my relief when the time came to leave and I knew that I could escape the tedium for another five years. However, I did learn something.

To drive a small truck you now need four cards, even though my entire working life I’ve never carried any of them; a driving licence, a Digi card, a CPC and finally a debit card to pay all the fines to which you’re likely to be subjected. New technology will record and photograph our every move. There will be strips on the road to get anyone for overloading, cameras for phone use, seatbelts and eating bananas and, coming soon, ‘noise pollution fines’ supported by audio receptors. Even a leisurely run out on a motor bike could leave you penniless.

And then there’s the army of officials to implement it all. The HSE, VOSA, Highways England, the council, the police, spy satellites, the North Koreans! Soon, everyone will be employed to get the motorist. Welcome to the small world of self-funded small business. If it moves, then over-regulate it and fine it into oblivion.

I now look at my father in a different light. He was a very well-educated individual with degrees in law and economics, but spent the bulk of his life driving old trucks. After a short career in the police, where he spent some time as a motorbike display rider (a dream job), he turned his back on the public sector and spent the rest of his life hauling anything and everything. For whatever reasons, this business was always conducted in very old vehicles. Whether, as a war babe, austerity was deeply engrained in his psychology, I don’t know, but the use of old vehicles meant he was constantly in conflict with authority. He was fined on a regular basis, but never paid. Knowing the law the way he did involved an annual ritual. Accumulated non-paid fines were turned into prison sentences. Once he had about six two-week prison sentences stacked up he presented himself to the police station. Asking for them to be concurrent meant reducing them to two instead of 12. Good behaviour meant a further reduction to one week. By handing yourself in at two minutes to midnight on a Friday meant Friday counted as day one. Saturday and Sunday counted as two days each and so he could be out on Tuesday morning, having served 12 weeks in three days!

This meant he could be back to work on Tuesday having only lost one day. While in prison over the weekend he was able to have dentistry, a haircut and sometimes even clothing.

As a child, I was completely unaware of where he was, as my mother was far too embarrassed to tell us and I only learned of this after his death. While I have no intention of following his example and cannot condone his actions, it does make me wonder if he was ahead of his time.