Highlights include problems with restricted O-licence operators and the difficulty of providing adequate regulation in Wales
The UK’s Traffic Commissioners (TCs) have released their annual report for 2014-15.
> Strategic objectives
In October 2014, the TCs agreed a set of key strategic objectives as part of an overall strategy for the O-licensing regime. They stated that as independent specialist regulators they promote safe, fair, efficient and reliable passenger and goods transport through effective and efficient licensing and regulation of the commercial vehicle industry, and want to be recognised by stakeholders as proportionate, accountable, consistent and transparent in their approach.
Four key strategic objectives were identified:
- To review and modernise the O-licence regime and to reduce the regulatory burden on the compliant commercial vehicle industry;
- To concentrate resource on regulating those drivers and operators who pose the greatest risk to road safety, fair competition, legal operation and protection of the environment;
- To review and modernise the regulation of commercial vehicle (HGV and PSV) drivers with the aim of ensuring a consistent regulatory outcome for all drivers who commit infringements; and
- To promote and improve registered bus service reliability and punctuality, the TCs aim to issue in 2015 a new Statutory Guidance Document No. 14 – Registered Bus Services and thereafter work with the DfT and DVSA to deliver compliance with this.
To meet these objectives, the TCs and their staff aim to work closely with a number of other enforcement agencies, and the police, and to listen to and communicate with stakeholders and seek to constantly improve licencing and regulation.
The regulators also want to develop a clear communications plan to educate and inform the commercial vehicle industry.
> Operating landscape
The report included a number of statistics on the UK’s operating environment.
Restricted licences, without the benefit of a transport manager, account for 53% of O-licences (45% of PSV O-licences). The regulators said it was vital to educated these operators.
A quarter of PSV O-licences issued to PSV operators are for a single vehicle, with 46% for two-five. Only 3% are for larger fleets of 50 or more vehicles.
According to data from Skills for Logistics, the average commercial vehicle driver is now aged 53, with 13% aged over 60. Only 2% are younger than 25.
In the PSV industry, there were 252 public inquiries over the period. 97 of these resulted in licence revocation, along with 23 orders for suspension and 31 reductions in vehicle authorisation. There were 44 formal warnings issued, mostly for operators who had already taken remedial action before arriving at the inquiry.
In 34 cases, no action was taken, which the report highlighted as a cause for concern. The TCs said they are working to divert as many of these cases as possible away from public inquiry to make better use of the regulators’ limited time.
Looking at disqualifications, 24 operators and 19 transport managers lost their repute. On bus reliability, 16 service cases were brought forward, with financial penalties imposed in 12 of these cases.
> Inadequate resources for Wales
Within the TCs’ individual reports, Nick Jones, who regulates both Wales and the West Midlands, expressed his frustration.
He began: “I encourage readers of this latest Annual Report as TC for Wales to refer to my previous annual reports; they cannot fail to note the repetition of the same themes.
“Funding allocated to the eight traffic areas is supposedly based on the workload of the seven individual traffic commissioners. This means that there is no specific allocation for Wales and it is treated as if it were part of the West Midlands of England. As a result, there is no separate financial provision for communication with trade associations in Wales or liaison with the Welsh Government; nor is there any allowance for the cost of hearings outside of the Birmingham office.
“The lack of any financial provision for compliance with the legislation relating to the Welsh language has been an ongoing concern which will eventually lead to interesting challenges. The historic approach to administration has meant that the interests of Welsh operators and the safety and convenience of the public in Wales has not been given the primacy it deserves.
“A number of anomalies result from the wording of the Local Transport Act 2008, not least that whilst I am accountable to the communities of Wales as their TC, it is for the Senior Traffic Commissioner to try and influence the budget allocation. However, as the individual who the Welsh Government and industry in Wales regard as the TC for Wales, I am very much concerned.
“I am encouraged that the DVSA is to recruit in an attempt to address some of the historic staffing shortfalls in the South Wales area. It will be interesting to see what happens with the work that is likely to be referred to a traffic commissioner as a result. I look forward to being in a position to better regulate on behalf of stakeholders.
“Currently, I have concerns that the many fine hard working family businesses in Wales suffer as a result of the lack of a level playing field. The public in Wales and the industries who I am supposed to regulate deserve both a TC and resources which are no less than that provided in England. Currently Wales continues with a second rate service with fees subsidising English areas.
“Finally, I record my appreciation of the moral and occasional tangible support provided to me by the Welsh Government, despite it having no formal legal duty to do so. Additionally, I remain appreciative of the support from my deputy TCs who have been of invaluable assistance. Over the past year I have had to rely on them even more than usual in view of difficulties within the West Midlands of England office, and also as I have been spending significant time dealing with a review of the statutory documentation in relation to driver conduct.”
In his report on the West Midlands traffic area, Nick Jones added: “When resources are so scarce there is always a risk that the regulation of the West Midlands area suffers as a result of my additional commitment to Wales, for that reason I continue to meet with the trade associations for both the goods and the coach and bus industries and thank them for the excellent work that they do.
“I have undertaken a lot of speaking engagements during the last year in an effort to try and inform and educate operators despite the paltry resource allocated between two traffic areas. In the absence of specific provision to support greater education I will never reach those operators who are not part of a trade body.
“I make no apology for commenting on the failures in the systems for supporting me. The length of time taken to process applications needs to be addressed. I want to set standards that suit the needs of West Midlands operators, rather than just administrative convenience.”
> Restricted O-Licences
Echoing the previous year, there were a number of concerns raised about issued with restricted O-licences.
Kevin Rooney, TC for the North East, said: “Restricted PSV operators have continued to take up a disproportionate amount of public inquiry time. Minibus operations linked to taxi businesses are the greatest concern and particularly, but not exclusively, in and around the Middlesbrough area.
“I spent two days in Middlesbrough in January where I heard 10 public inquiries. This resulted in two applications being refused, three existing licences being revoked, one suspended indefinitely and a range of undertakings attached to the remainder. This generated significant press coverage and I hope the message is starting to sink in that managing an O-licence is very different from running private hire and taxi vehicles.”
London and the South East TC Nick Denton added in his report: “Restricted licence holders do not have to have a qualified transport manager but must still abide by the same laws on safe vehicle operation, drivers’ hours etc as standard licence holders.
“Too many applicants for restricted licences in my area sign the application form promising that they will abide by these laws without actually knowing what the laws are or ever subsequently troubling to find out. I have lost count of the number of restricted licence holders who have at my insistence attended an O-licence management course and who have subsequently told me that they never realised what holding a licence involved and wished they had attended such a course much earlier.
“I am always glad to welcome such prodigal sons and daughters back into the fold of the compliant, but how much better and cheaper it would have been to have found out what they were supposed to do before embarking on their restricted licence operation rather than several years later.”
Joan Aitken, TC for Scotland, added: “I continue to find applicants for or operators of restricted licences (minibus licences) who do not qualify to hold such, having no principal occupation. Standard national operators who require a transport manager and greater finance have justifiable grievances against many of such operators.”
> Money Wasters
Nick Denton provided some interesting insight on the appeals process which was a particular peeve of his.
He said: “Operators launched 17 appeals to the Upper Tribunal against my decisions in 2014/15. An operator has every right to appeal, but four of these appeals were withdrawn by the operator just before they were due to be heard.
“The expense of an appeal (to my office rather than the operator) is considerable. A transcript of the often lengthy inquiry must be paid for and there are further costs in terms of materials and staff time in the preparation of the huge wodge of documents which each appeal involves.
“The right to appeal is an essential part of the regulatory process and resources are rightly deployed to support this, but there seems to be a trend of operators launching appeals which have no chance of success and then withdrawing them when they have looked at the issue in the cold light of day and drawn the inevitable conclusion. By this time all the expenses described above have been incurred – for no eventual purpose, as the appeal is not heard.
“The waste of public money involved makes my blood boil. Of course, the costs redound in the end upon compliant operators, through licence fees. I do think that there is a case to be made for charging appellants – if they withdraw an appeal – the costs which traffic commissioners have incurred before the withdrawn.”