Last reviewed 15 September 2020

Each year the Traffic Commissioners (TCs) produce a report for the Secretary of State giving their observations from the year just gone and their strategic plans for the following year. The report also contains detailed statistics relating to their licensing and disciplinary functions. In this article Richard Smith outlines the main points of the 2019-20 report and examines some of the statistics included.

The Senior Traffic Commissioner’s foreword

The reporting period running up to 31 March 2020 covers the initial stages of the response to Covid-19 and in his opening sentence the Senior TC rightly stresses that the Traffic Commissioner system is uniquely equipped to respond to rapid change and how that was shown by its response to outbreak. The flexibility to be proactive and relax statutory requirements quickly to meet the needs of the industry while maintaining a sensible risk-based approach to safety shows the effectiveness of this type of regulation in contrast to more centrist approaches. Essential to the success of this approach are regular compliance checks, not only by the enforcement agencies but by operators themselves, who by actively scrutinising their own performance “do not attract the attention of traffic commissioners”. He also gives credit to the individuals within industry itself who have literally “gone the extra mile” to maintain essential supply chains when much of the rest of the country was sitting at home.

One of the challenges of the lock-down has been finding ways to maintain the skills and knowledge required by managers in such challenging circumstances, when face-to-face training has not been possible. With course providers, TC Nick Denton has developed criteria for delivery of operator CPC training online and at least 11 providers now offer this method. This was initiated as a response to the pandemic, but Traffic Commissioners will be looking at how it can be taken forward as a permanent improvement.

Traffic Commissioners’ reports

The Traffic Commissioners emphasise the importance of operators taking a risk-based approach to managing their own businesses, which will allow efficiency, innovation and true competitive advantage to emerge, rather than looking for a set direction from above on every single aspect. The O-licensing requirements provide a compliance framework and it is up to individual mangers to determine how to manage the particular risks relevant to their own operations (see Risk Management in Road Transport Operations).

One important area mentioned is that of self-employment and the need for drivers and operators to review their employment status ahead of the IR35 reforms now due in 2021. This is necessary not only in regard to possible tax evasion penalties from HMRC but also to ensure that operators have the level of control necessary to deliver their operator licence responsibilities.

The Commissioners commend the growth in professionalism of the express courier logistics sector and recognise its importance, particularly in current circumstances. Although these operations are mostly not (yet) regulated by the TCs, they do maintain liaison with the Institute of Couriers and the new degree apprenticeship for express managers is supported by them.

The report notes a continued improvement in brake testing by operators but also emphasises the operator’s responsibility to ensure vehicles are operated without risk to road safety, pointing specifically to bridge strikes and the threat of regulatory action where operators do not take appropriate action. The use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) in following-up revocation, suspension and curtailment decisions and point to the potential for it to be used in enforcement of drivers’ hours is also highlighted.

The shape of the industry

A snapshot shows that in the 12 months up to 31 March, 79% of domestic freight was moved by road, amounting to 152 billion tonne kilometres. UK registered vehicles were involved in 5.6 billion tonne kilometres of international freight movement, contributing £12 billion to the UK economy. All these numbers being an increase on the previous year. Only 1.56 million people were involved in “transport and storage” compared with 2.54 million in “haulage and logistics” the previous year but these figures may not be comparable owing to the change in sector designation. None of these figures, of course, will have been affected in any significant way by the outbreak and we must wait until next year to see what effect there has been, if any.

Operator licences

The total number of operator licences in issue was about 2000 fewer than the previous year (at 68,983), continuing the trend established over at least the last 10 years. Within the overall total, the greatest proportion (52%) were restricted licences, international licences made up the smallest fraction (12%) and national licences therefore accounted for the remaining 36%. The South East and Metropolitan area saw a notable fall (by about 400) in the number of licences in total, this trend affecting all types of licence. The Traffic Area with the highest total number of licences is the Eastern with 18% of all licences.

The Eastern Traffic Area also leads by a long way in the case of international licences with over 20% of those in issue. When the number of Community Licences issued is taken into account it is clear that nationally only 42% of the total vehicles held on international licences are actually used in international traffic at any one time, though this is a percentage recovering strongly towards the 2010-11 figure of 47% after a low of 37% in 2016-17. The highest percentage of vehicles in international service is, unsurprisingly, found in those areas with ports and the figure of 33,791 Community Licences might more accurately reflect the number of ECMT permits needed in the event of a no-deal, although as neither ECMT Permits nor Community Authorisations are vehicle-specific the actual number required may well be even less than that.

Vehicles

The total number of vehicles in use in 2019-20 is virtually the same as it was in 2010-11, though this disguises a significant fall in numbers of vehicles on restricted licences and a small rise in numbers on international licences; the number on national licences (by far the most) is about the same.

The report no longer includes details of the break-down of operators by fleet size and it is only possible to calculate an average across the industry. Such averages are often misleading or meaningless on their own and it will be well recognised that such an average is actually made up from a large number of small fleets and a small number of large ones. Taken over time, however, they do perhaps show a trend and in this case the average fleet size for all types of licence plateaued between 2018 and 2020 at 5.3 after a general rising trend from the beginning of the decade, perhaps the Traffic Commissioners’ guidance on transport manager responsibilities is being heeded. Regionally it seems that average fleets in the two northern English Traffic Areas and the West Midlands are significantly larger than elsewhere.

Environmental restrictions

The suitability of the operating centre is not one of the quality criteria included in EU Regulation 1071/2009 but is imposed under the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995. There are no data on the number of licences refused (if any) on environmental grounds but the numbers of licences granted with environmental restrictions (both new licences and publishable variations) have been recorded since 2015-16.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the greatest number of licences granted with restrictions are in the South East and Metropolitan Traffic Area (70 in 2019-20) with the Western TA close behind (59) despite these Traffic Areas having the lowest number of licences in England. It should be noted that if the UK adopts EU Regulation 2020/1055 the ability of TCs to consider environmental grounds will be removed.

Conclusion

The report shows a sector that continues to be of vital, and growing, importance to the nation, and one leading the way in regulatory and operational agility in difficult circumstances. A proactive, risk-based approach to business and fleet management is recommended. Consolidation in the industry seems to be continuing, leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness if the national contribution to the economy is a guide.