Joan Aitken, SSC, Traffic Commissioner for Scotland
© John G. Fender 2011
The April meeting was addressed by Ms. Joan Aitken, Traffic Commissioner for the Scottish Traffic Area on some of the challenges that she has faced during her first year as the Scottish Traffic Commissioner.
Ms. Aitken was previously the Scottish Prison Complaints Commissioner and is a qualified solicitor, was the first woman to be admitted to the Society of Solicitors of the Supreme Courts of Scotland and a former editor of the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.
She began her talk by looking at the public perception of the post of Traffic Commissioner, Ms. Aitken noted that in general, the public tended not understand exactly what a Traffic Commissioner did and some people thought that her remit covered everything from railways to traffic lights, whereas in fact the Traffic Commissioner's have responsibilities for both the freight haulage and road passenger industries. With reference to the road passenger industry, Ms. Aitken views her role, not so much as a lawyer, but the person responsible for making the buses run on time.
The job of Traffic Commissioner can be broadly divided into five main areas. Firstly is the "desk job" considering applications for Operator's Licences and whilst most of these are dealt with by the Traffic Area office, many cases are passed to her for consideration, especially applications for Interim Licences for goods vehicle operators. These applications are open to objections and unless there are sound safety, environmental or neighbourhood reasons that an Interim Licence should not be granted, generally applications will be granted. However, it is necessary for the haulage industry to be "good neighbours". Experience has shown that, especially in rural areas, objections come from incomers who do not understand that local hauliers are vital to the local economy so a balance must be maintained.
Next, there is the Public Inquiry work involving contentious licence applications or cases where regulatory action is being considered. Matters that are considered are cases where the good repute comes into question whether the operator has appropriate financial standing or "phoenix" applications. Each case is considered on its merits. There are also drivers conduct hearings and Traffic Commissioners have disciplinary powers against vocational driving entitlement. The conduct of bus and truck drivers can result in having to appear before the Traffic Commissioner who can, if necessary, revoke, curtail or suspend a drivers' vocational driving entitlement.
The Traffic Commissioner is also responsible for taxi appeals, for example, if a local authority fixes fares, taxi operators can appeal to the Traffic Commissioner regarding the fares and the Traffic Commissioner can hold a hearing to consider the matter. Another aspect of the Traffic Commissioner's work is appointing parking adjudicators, with the approval of the Lord Advocate, for areas where the local authority is responsible for parking enforcement and not the police. The Traffic Commissioner is also involved with policy issues and educational aspects of transport.
Given this diverse range of work, Ms. Aitken pointed out that there are many challenges in today's fast moving world and that case law is changing rapidly, for example, under recent legislation, an Operator's Licence can now be considered to be property. Also, proportionality is relation to offences is called for and this has a bearing of decisions made following Public Inquiries. Such aspects have brought greater fairness into the system. In addition to powers to revoke, suspend or curtail Operators Licences, Traffic Commissioners can attach additional conditions to enforce particular requirements, for example, restricting an operator's ability to operate services.
So what differences can a new Traffic Commissioner make? Ms. Aitken thought that being imaginative with decisions and with compliance leveraged in would make a difference. If however, the operator does not comply, then revocation is a possibility, but at all times safety must not be compromised. Bus operators in particular have a duty to operate the services that they register in accordance with that registration. If they fail to meet their obligation, then they will face restrictions being placed on their ability to run registered services. Bus companies have opportunities in today's deregulated environment, but they must get things right. Ms. Aitken answered many questions on various matters from the floor during which she outlined some possible developments and highlighted some specific areas that have been before her for consideration.
The Scottish Region of the ILT would like to record its thanks to Ms. Aitken for taking the time to address the Aberdeen meeting and to First Group for its continued support for the Aberdeen meetings. For further information, visit the Vehicle Operator Services Agency Website.
Report by John Fender.
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