How effective has the restricted O-licence in Northern Ireland been?

Commercial Motor
December 18, 2017


Five years ago, a major revamp of the Northern Ireland HGV operator licensing system was launched to crack down on the country’s high number of unroadworthy vehicles.

The Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 2010 stated that from July 2012, an own-account operator using a goods vehicle over 3.5 tonnes to carry their own goods as part of a trade or business would be required to obtain an O-licence, as in the rest of the UK.

Up until that time it had only been operators using vehicles over 3.5 tonnes to carry goods for hire or reward that had to be licensed.

Under the new act, the operator-licensing functions carried out by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) in Northern Ireland were transferred to the newly formed Transport Regulation Unit (TRU). This would oversee the application process and the issue of licences, and through the appointment of a traffic regulator manage the disciplinary elements of the legislation.

One of the main drivers behind the changes were statistics such as those from the DVA in 2011, which showed that of 926 HGVs and 426 trailers stopped and checked between May and August of that year, one-third had serious defects. A tenth of HGVs were found to have committed one or more traffic offences of a serious nature, and only 47% of vehicles, trailers and driving units were completely compliant.

Leading up to the introduction of the legislation, then RHA national chairman Willie Oliver told the Northern Ireland Assembly that change was imperative. 

“The essence of the bill is that own-account licensing has now been brought to the same level as professional haulage licensing,” he said. “That has traditionally been a grey area, particularly in the quarry sector. Drivers working for a quarry and hauling its goods have been required to be licensed, yet a quarry owner running his own vehicles has not.

“At present, only 15% to 20% of lorries in Northern Ireland require a licence. That is because most lorries belong to the own-account sector. The bill should level the playing field,” he added.

So what effect has it had? According to figures from the Police Service Northern Ireland, the level of goods vehicles involved in all road traffic collisions remains at the same level – around 7.5% – in 2016 as it did in 2011.

However, compliance figures have seen a marked improvement. The non-compliance rate of HGVs in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 stood at 22%. Roadworthiness defects were found in one in 10 HGVs.

“There has been real change since 2012, both in the statistics and what you see at ground level,” says Seamus Leheny, policy manager for Northern Ireland at the FTA.

"The level of professionalism in the industry among the overwhelming majority has increased. Own-account operators are now taking the role of transport much more seriously. It was seen as an overhead before, but now with the O-licensing changes they have the requirement to run a safer operation.”

Leheny says this includes increased investment in qualified transport managers and record-keeping system technology. It means more preventative maintenance, improved driver training and an increase in the leasing of vehicles to improve the quality of fleet roadworthiness.

“We have also seen a 10% reduction in the number of retests needed following annual checks,” he explains. “We weren’t in this place five years ago. Operators have grasped compliance. Driver walk-around checks were a novelty in 2011, now they are the norm.”

Improved road safety

A spokesman for the TRU adds: “We believe significant progress has been made in terms of improved road safety, enhanced fair competition with reduced environmental damage and organised crime. 

“Compliance and first-time annual roadworthiness test rates for HGVs have improved considerably since 2012. The department also holds regular inquiries and hearings for both transport managers and operators to ensure issues of non-compliance are addressed.” 

The TRU says more can be done to improve levels of non-compliance, and hopes changes such as DVA enforcement officers starting to use digital tablets to support their roadside compliance activities will help. 

“This will give them access to the data they need to quickly assess vehicle, operator and driver compliance,” the spokesman adds. “The DVA will maximise the benefits of this technology to effectively deploy resources and target non-compliant vehicles for inspection.”

Willie Oliver, founder of Coleraine-based Oliver Transport Services, is also cheered by the effect of the legislation. “When you consider driver errors and vehicle defects, they seem to have improved dramatically,” he says. “There is a belief, however, that we would be better placed with a mirror image of the independent regulatory system we have on the mainland – a traffic commissioner rather than the TRU, which is part of the Department of Infrastructure and run by civil servants. The system is in place, but the management leave a bit to be desired.”

Another industry insider agrees that the present system can be improved. “There is a perception in Northern Ireland that O-licences are being granted which, if they were put under the same scrutiny and criteria in Great Britain, might not lead to the same result,” the insider states. 

“There is also a feeling that there is a breakdown between the enforcement work carried out by the DVA and the subsequent number of public inquiries being held. Are they being followed up as quickly and rigorously as they should by the TRU?”

On the licensing issue, the TRU says the entry requirements for restricted licence holders is the same in Northern Irish legislation as it is in the rest of the UK.

Processing applications

However, each case is looked at individually and “it is difficult to draw parallels between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as the British licensing regime has been embedded in that jurisdiction for decades”, says the TRU.

Its spokesman adds: “In considering each case the department takes into account the case history, the relevant legislative provisions, guidance material developed based on the senior traffic commissioner’s statutory practice documents, internal guidance, case law and proportionality in making a determination. 

“The NI Central Licensing Office (NICLO) in Leeds processes applications for NI operators and has delegated authority to determine applications that meet certain standards criteria.” 

On the enforcement point, the TRU says it endeavours to follow up on all cases as quickly as is practicable.

“However, the licensing and regulation of goods vehicles operators is funded by the freight industry. This is through the fees paid on application for and grant of a licence and upon the five-year licence continuation review,” the TRU states. “As there are currently no plans to increase fees, there is not scope to provide additional staff to the TRU, which could help to improve processing times and conclude regulatory cases more quickly.”

Leheny picks up on the funding point. “No system is perfect. There were concerns about the independence of the role, but we have not had any complaints from our members about this. There are plenty of people in Great Britain who are intrigued by how we run things here without the TC involvement.

“What we do see is a need for more resources and funding for enforcement. A lot of civil servants have taken voluntary redundancy in Northern Ireland in the past two years, and it means experienced staff have left the DVA and TRU. They are stretched and need more help.”

  • By David Craik

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Commercial Motor is the online presence for Commercial Motor magazine, the world’s oldest magazine dedicated to the commercial vehicle industry.

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