The Department for Transport (DfT) has made a concession to how PSVAR is applied to home to school transport by introducing a limited temporary exemption from the Regulations following work by the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT).
Exemption is only available where no more than 20% of the vehicle’s passenger seats are available to passengers who have paid a fare, says a letter from DfT to relevant authorities that has been seen by routeone.
Speaking about the development, CPT Operations Director Keith McNally says that it is “a welcome first step in seeking a resolution that ensures coach operators can continue to provide vital home to school transport.”
Move quickly for PSVAR exemption…
When granted, exemptions will last until 31 December 2021. They are available for both coaches and buses. Applications should be made via the organisation that procures the service, be that a local authority (LA), a school or a college.
To obtain an exemption, operators should provide the relevant body with details of the vehicle(s) for which it is required. It will then apply to DfT, which will issue what it calls “a special authorisation certificate”.
There is no limit to the number of exemption requests that each procuring organisation may submit. However, the Department has advised that it should receive those applications by 13 December if they are to be granted by year end.
DfT adds that when the special authorisation certificate is issued, it should be made available to the operator. A copy should be carried on an exempted vehicle when it is used on a service that would otherwise require compliance. It should be shown to enforcement officials if requested.
News of the exemption process came last week after CPT engaged in dialogue with DfT. It applies only to qualifying home to school services, but CPT is in negotiations regarding rail replacement work.
An exemption can be granted for a vehicle that will either become non-compliant with PSVAR when dispensations for older coaches are withdrawn from 1 January 2020, or one which is already non-compliant.
DfT says confusion has arisen whether PSVAR applies to school services where some or all the seats are sold, rather than provided free of charge. It has already been established that where transport is provided free, PSVAR does not apply.
The letter sent last week states that the former services are subject to PSVAR. However, it adds that it has recently become aware that many providers are not able to provide compliant services, either now or from January 2020.
It adds that many providers would cease to source ‘mixed’ services, where some seats are provided free of charge and others are paid for, rather than procuring PSVAR-compliant vehicles.
“The right solution was to offer operators of home to school services a temporary exemption to allow them to become compliant,” says the letter.
“Ministers took account of the implications of these services ceasing for both pupils and local authorities, as well as the importance that Ministers place on ensuring that transport services are accessible to both disabled and non-disabled people.”
DfT wants to see operators upgrade their fleets to achieve PSVAR compliance on those services that require it.
However, if the agreed exemption period does not prove sufficient for them to do so, DfT has proposed that a further two-year exemption period may be introduced from 2022. In that case, a maximum of 50% of such services procured by each provider could hold such an exemption.
And rail replacement too?
Mr McNally adds that CPT continues to engage with DfT to “ensure that there is clarity for services that fall outside the scope of this exemption, including rail replacement.”
While nothing is guaranteed, CPT is “hopeful” that a resolution can be reached for rail replacement. CPT is also talking with DfT about home to school services that do not qualify for the existing exemption.
It is understood that DfT settled on a 20% limit to the number of seats that can be made available to farepayers based on thinking that it distinguishes between services that meet a statutory obligation for transport and those that do not.
it is clear that DfT still expects a move towards compliance with PSVAR. The exemptions – both the one announced already and a possible extension – at least allow extra time to reach that point.
An exemption from PSVAR for certain home to school services is notable. It will be welcomed by many – but not all – operators. But what is clear is that it is temporary. It is not a permanent solution.
DfT wants operators to work towards compliance on all in-scope home to school services. In effect, it is giving a period of grace to allow them to do so. That is above the years for which the consequences of PSVAR were already known about.
What remains to be seen is the approach that will be taken by enforcement agencies when the exemption period comes to an end.
Thus far, both DVSA and at least one Traffic Commissioner have indicated that they will take a softly-softly view. That is, if DVSA does much at all; its resource pressures are no secret.
But things in that regard may change, particularly come 2022 or 2024.