Wednesday 22 September 2021

DfT mulls future direction of traffic commissioners

Industry representatives, as well as trade groups and lo­cal authorities, have been encouraged to contribute to a Department for Transport (DfT) review of the role of the traffic commissioners (TCs), includ­ing with views on whether the functions they carry out are required.

The eight TCs and their eleven deputies are responsible for a range of regulatory functions across England, Scotland and Wales – including the licensing of HGV and PSV operators, registration of local bus services, and enforcement against non-compliant operators and drivers, including via public inquiry. They have recently published their latest annual report detailing current regulatory and operational concerns.

TCs are also responsible for assessing the environmental suitability of centres designated as parking locations for trucks, and have powers to impose financial penalties against bus operators failing to adhere to registered timetables.

The consultation, which was set to close on 8 September at time of publication, would “provide robust assessment, challenge and assurance on the health and effectiveness” of the TCs and their office, the DfT said.

It also examines whether the TCs are carrying out their functions effectively and efficiently, and whether the support provided by DVSA and the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) allows them to do so.

The review additionally asks whether OTC support should continue to be provided by DVSA, “or would be more effec­tive if separated, given DVSA’s enforcement functions and the TC role as independent regula­tors.”

Review participants were asked wide-ranging questions, including how far they agreed or disagreed that the TCs were sufficiently independent from central government; that the function of holding public inquiries and conduct hearings was necessary; that the function of processing vehicle operator licences for HGVs and PSVs was necessary; and whether the TCs were the best placed body to perform such tasks.

Questions were also asked about whether current fee levels were appropriate, whether services were being provided ‘in a timely fashion’, which current TC functions should be prioritised, and whether any additional functions should be provided.

Announcing the review, transport minister Baroness Vere said: “Traffic commissioners play a key role in road safety, including helping ensure that people who operate HGVs and coaches are reputable, that there is fair competition between operators and that public inquiry proceedings are fair.

“I want to ensure that this important function is as effective as possible, which is why I have launched a thorough review and encourage anyone with an interest to have their say.”

The wide scope of the review raises questions about the gov­ernment’s long-term intentions as regards the commissioners, including whether a degree of deregulation may be on the cards.

It follows a call by the previous head of DVSA, Gareth Llewellyn, on his departure from the role, to abolish the TCs, who have on occasion clashed with the agency over operational issues.

Speaking to a select committee of MPs late last year, Mr Llewellyn opined that the TCs were ‘anachronistic’.

“I am firmly of the view that we don’t need the traffic commissioners anymore,” he said.

“They were probably OK in the 1930s, but the reality is we have a really good track record of enforcement through the courts and tribunal service and I think we should be doing that for operators as well, and that will save us millions and millions of pounds. Not necessarily in terms of people, but in terms of simplifying systems and removing un-necessary estate.”

The comments attracted criticism at the time from David Wells, chief executive of Logistics UK.

“To say the traffic commissioner service is ‘anachronistic’ and the haulage industry does not need its support totally ignores the huge benefits in safety and compliance which the service provides to the sector,” he said.

“During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the TCs supported industry to keep goods and services flowing to keep the country running, unlike DVSA, which closed down all its services and only reacted to the urgent needs of operators when pushed by industry. The TCs kept their doors open to assist the work of our members throughout 2020 – a modern and forward-thinking approach, and not one rooted in the 20th century, as Mr Llewellyn claimed.”

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