New figures from Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment (DOE) suggest there are still many operators who should hold restricted operating licences there but do not, after changes to the operator licensing scheme back in 2012.

Despite the requirement from July that year for own-account operators to get a restricted licence, there were just 3,813 restricted operator licences or permits in place at the end of December 2014 – down from 4,724 at the end of March 2013 and still substantially under the 6,000-7,000 restricted licences the Transport Regulation Unit (TRU) anticipated in early 2013 would eventually be applied for.

A spokesman for the DOE told  this week that the original TRU figure was “a rough estimate… and included vehicles that subsequently fell out of scope of the restricted licensing regime or were exempt”.

The DOE has not confirmed, however, how many own-account operators it does now believe should hold a licence or permit but do not.

“It is very difficult to assess how many own-account operators should hold a restricted licence,” said the spokesman. “However, since 1 April 2014, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has conducted roadside surveys to assess compliance with the goods vehicle operator licensing regime and approximately 90% of vehicles observed have had a valid operator’s licence in place.

“The DVA will continue to take robust enforcement action against unlicensed operators, whether own-account or hire-and-reward, with a view to improving compliance with the operator licensing regime,” he added.

FTA policy and membership relations manager for Northern Ireland, Seamus Leheny, said the apparent drop in the number of restricted licence holders since March 2013 could be the result of a number of factors.

These include firms switching from a restricted licence to a standard international operator’s licence, in order to take advantage of the fuel duty rebate scheme in the ROI which such licence holders can participate in; and companies deliberately downsizing to vehicles under 3.5 tonnes GVW in order to avoid the whole licensing scheme altogether.

“I know several members who have made the change to a standard international licence in recent months and I think a lot of people have downsized their vehicles,” he confirmed.