Current exemptions from PSVAR for in-scope home-to-school services have been extended by four months to expire on 31 July 2022. That has come after the Department for Transport (DfT) acknowledged that “a lack of clarity on what will follow them could prevent local authorities, schools and colleges from making plans for the remainder of the current academic year.”
The news is contained within a letter sent by Under-Secretary of State for Transport Baroness Vere on 16 December to leaders of trade bodies representing the coach and bus sector and other stakeholders. It supersedes the information contained in her previous letter of 6 July, which stated that those exemptions would expire on 31 March 2022.
Beyond 31 July 2022 for in-scope home-to-school duties and the existing 30 June 2022 expiry date for exemptions issued for rail replacement services, Lady Vere says that “vehicles subject to the Regulations but unable to comply with them must be covered by a further exemption to operate relevant services or be adapted to be compliant.”
Operators will be contacted “in sufficient time” to apply for those qualified medium-term special authorisations. DfT will use that process to specify the terms under which they will be issued.
However, it is likely that as part of the medium-term approach, further full exemptions for home-to-school and rail replacement services will be available to non-compliant vehicles for six more months to expire on 31 December 2022 (rail replacement) or 31 January 2023 (home-to-school). Beyond that, operators will be required “to meet increasing levels of compliance over the lifetime of the exemption,” the minister’s letter states.
Operators with special authorisations for home-to-school services that were issued on the basis of them expiring on 31 March 2022 will be contacted directly by DfT.
Where a PSVAR exemption expires on 31 December, it may be extended to 31 July 2022 by emailing the Department. However, one operator that recently attempted to obtain a new exemption via that channel was subsequently informed by DfT of turnaround times of up to two weeks for such applications.
In an unexpected note, Lady Vere adds that the medium-term exemption process for in-scope home-to-school services that is currently being explored will be tailored by fleet size, “recognising that larger operators are more likely to be able to increase compliance faster than smaller ones.” It is not clear upon what evidence that statement is based.
The UK Coach Operators Association (UKCOA) has welcomed news that current home-to-school PSVAR exemptions have been extended. Managing Director Peter Bradley says that UKCOA is “delighted” with the development, but he cautions that “a lot of work” remains to be done before a permanent solution is found. The Association has lobbied both DfT and Lady Vere heavily over recent weeks after a lack of action since the letter of 6 July.
December’s message from Lady Vere adopts a notably less combative tone than the controversial approach of July. The most recent address notes “the concerns of operators in terms of both the challenge of investing in their fleets in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lady Vere adds: “I look forward to your continued support as we develop and implement these exemptions.” That is in contrast to the earlier letter, which warned the industry that exemptions “must not be used as a licence to discriminate.”
Separate to the latest announcement, it is understood that the government’s review of PSVAR – first announced in the National Bus Strategy for England when it was published in March – is yet to begin. It is slated for completion by late 2023.