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Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency: Shetland

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 27 October 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the operation of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency in Shetland.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ghani, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I am pleased to have secured this debate, although I am enormously frustrated that it has been necessary. Candidly, as a constituency Member of Parliament, I feel that this is now the tactic of last resort in protecting the interests of my constituency. I have never before found myself in this situation since I entered the House in 2001, despite having handled scores—maybe hundreds—of local issues that were much more complicated than this one.

My history of engagement with the DVSA on the provision of HGV and motorcycle testing in Shetland goes back several years. For as long as it has been necessary to undertake those parts of the respective driving tests that are conducted off road in Shetland, that has been done in part of the grounds of the former Anderson High School in Lerwick. When the school moved to its current site in 2017, it was apparent that that would no longer be available, as the site was earmarked for redevelopment. DVSA was told by Shetland Islands Council in 2016 that the Anderson High site was earmarked for development and, on 24 November 2017, the council advised the DVSA that it would need to vacate the site by the end of March 2018.

Early correspondence with Gareth Llewellyn, then chief executive of DVSA, stated that the last tests would be carried out on the site on 31 March 2018. Mr Llewellyn offered me one of those less than reassuring reassurances:

“We are committed to providing a service in Shetland but this is dependent on securing new premises.”

Even at that stage, it appeared to me that DVSA, having had more than a year to do something about a problem of which it had been made aware and about which it had done nothing, was prepared to leave Shetland without local provision.

At that early stage, there seemed to be a polite lack of energy in the approach taken by the agency, so at the request of local instructors I became involved. Following my intervention, the Shetland Islands Council agreed an initial extension until the end of June 2018. At this point, I should put on record my appreciation of the efforts and input from local driving instructors in Shetland, in particular Steve Henry and Petur Petursson. The commitment to the community and the professionalism of both of those gentlemen, and the time and trouble they have taken to advise me and assist DVSA in identifying possible new sites, has gone well beyond anything that could have been asked of them.

DVSA staff visited Shetland and different possibilities were explored. They met local stakeholders and a location at the former Decca site on the edge of Lerwick was identified, which could be developed for use. It is a flat area of ground finished with hardcore, but it would obviously be required to be topped with tarmac. Unlike the previous site at the former Anderson High School, this would be a purpose-built facility and would be required to be kept for the use of the DVSA; it would not be a shared space.

Having already seen the approach of the DVSA, I asked for, and was given, a commitment to have regular update calls, naively thinking that that might concentrate minds. Several calls took place, and at each turn I was assured that progress was being made. Eventually, we got to the point where it was left to the DVSA and the owner of the land to work out the details, the principles having been agreed. The negotiation of commercial contracts, even when I was in legal practice, was never a strength of mine, and I know my limitations. I felt that this piece of work may not have got over the line, but at least the line was in sight, and that I should leave it to work its way through. Shetland Islands Council helpfully and generously agreed to make the site at the former Anderson High School available for continued use by the DVSA for as long as it could.

Thereafter, whenever inquiry was made, I was told that the details were still being worked out, and I was happy to accept these reassurances; I had, after all, been told in correspondence from DVSA on 26 June 2018 that estimated costs had been provided and that the business case for the new site would be considered by an extraordinary meeting of the investment change committee of the DVSA with a view to its receiving approval. It was thought then that the necessary works would take four weeks to complete. Correspondence in July, August and September contained similar commitments. In October 2018, I was told that

“the majority of issues have been resolved and those that remain are not insurmountable.”

In January 2019, I was told that the outstanding issues would be resolved by the week commencing 4 February. Accepting the continued commitment of the DVSA to provide a local service in Shetland, I agreed to receive further updates as they were available, rather than monthly. That may have been my mistake.

In autumn last year, knowing that the redevelopment of the site at the former Anderson High School was going to bring this to a head again, I reopened correspondence with the DVSA and asked for a meeting with the former chief executive to discuss the situation. Requests for updates went unanswered, and Gareth Llewelyn refused the requested meeting. The new chief executive of the DVSA, Loveday Ryder, came into post on 1 January. My requests for meetings were renewed, but no commitments were made. Eventually, as a result of the interventions of the Minister’s noble Friend, Baroness Vere, Loveday Ryder made a commitment to meet me. That was eventually organised to take place by Zoom on 7 April, initially for 30 minutes but then reduced to 15 minutes.

It is fair to say that the meeting on 7 April was not productive. Ahead of it, DVSA officials said that they would not provide further information about progress on the issue as the rules of purdah would not allow it while Scottish parliamentary elections were ongoing. Purdah guidance not only does not forbid the sharing of information in circumstances such as this but actually exists to provide the basis on which it should be done. Had the DVSA told me that it would share information with me on the basis that it would not be transmitted further, I would happily have taken the meeting on that basis, but no such offer was made. I asked Ministers’ offices for an explanation of the interpretation of purdah guidance favoured by the DVSA and was told that its view had been confirmed by the Cabinet Office. However, the Cabinet Office subsequently told my office that it had offered no supplementary guidance to the Department. It appears that that use of the purdah guidance was in fact a quite deliberate attempt by the DVSA to avoid providing me with information that it obviously had at that point.

It was also apparent at that stage that there was a major issue with the progress of the project, and that all the previous reassurances and commitments I received from the agency were basically worthless. Following the elections at the beginning of May, it was confirmed in correspondence that the agency had decided not to go ahead with the development of the site at the former Decca station, citing the cost. I have subsequently found out about the costs, and it seems that they are high. The specification is questionable, but at no point when we have sought to engage with DVSA about the specification—with regard to the detail of it and the possible terms of any lease—has it been in any way forthcoming or offered to engage. Information is provided grudgingly and no explanation to show the working of it is ever provided.

It was also known by this time that the absolute final deadline for using the site at the former Anderson High School was looming. Work was due to start there on 31 July and it would no longer be available from that date—that turned out to be the case. There followed a series of meetings involving myself, local instructors and DVSA officials. As a result of these meetings I was made aware that it was the intention of the agency to use a third site that it had identified, near the former Scatsta airport, 25 miles north of Lerwick. The local instructors were clear in telling the agency that that was not a workable solution for them and, in fact, if that were the only provision to be made they would discontinue to provide the service. The response of the agency was to ignore the concerns of local instructors and to insist that this was the only service that it would provide.

Unfortunately, on further investigation it transpired that despite having known for months that the 31 July deadline was looming, the DVSA had made no formal attempts to secure a lease on the site near Scatsta airport, and no planning application had been submitted for its change of use. Despite this, the DVSA proceeded to offer bookings for tests in August; the sheer lack of professionalism in this is breath-taking. In fact, Shetland Islands Council is not prepared to allow the use of the site at Scatsta airport, and as a consequence we now find ourselves in a position where no training or testing for the off-road elements of the HGV and motorcycle tests are available to my constituents in Shetland.

In response to my request for further meetings and updates I have been told that these will only be held when there is something to be shared; I see no evidence of the agency doing anything to move this issue on. I do not know what more I can do as a constituency Member of Parliament to resolve this issue. My constituents are left without the provision of a vital public service. In essence, the root cause of the problem appears to be a cultural one within the agency; instead of being willing to engage with local stakeholders to work towards finding a solution, the attitude has been one of high-handed indifference. That would be unacceptable in any circumstances, but the way that the agency has conducted itself lacks not just respect for the local communities but also basic professionalism. In what circumstances can it possibly be appropriate for a Government agency to offer appointments for tests at a site where it does not hold a lease or have any formal agreement with the owner?

This lack of professionalism is also apparent from the recent changes to the provision of written theory tests. In August it became apparent that the only provision for sitting a theory test in Shetland would be at sites in Mid Yell and Whalsay—both sites on islands away from the main centres of population on Shetland mainland. Do not get me wrong: if that had been provision in addition to that made over the years in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland mainland, I would have been quite delighted—I would have been the first to welcome it. But as an alternative to the provision of tests in the main town, it simply beggared belief.

Recent casework has disclosed that all theory tests in October have been cancelled due to, and I quote, “IT problems” with the new provider, Reed In Partnership. My office has sought further specification of what the IT problems are, but to date no explanation has been forthcoming. It has been suggested to me—I do not know if this is the case or not—that the IT problem is that they do not have the necessary computers to do the test. If it was not so serious it would be laughable.

As I said at the outset, I have never before found myself in a situation like this as a Member of Parliament. Elsewhere in this building today the Transport Committee is taking evidence on the work of the agency. The problems facing the agency seem to go well beyond the shores of Shetland. They are cultural and deep rooted. They ought to be tackled by the senior management of the agency, and if they cannot or will not do that, it should be up to Ministers to sort it. The people who are blameless in all this are my constituents, but they are the ones who are left without this most crucial of public services.

Thank you, Mr Carmichael. I think you have done Shetland proud. Are there any further speakers? I see that the Chair of the Transport Committee is here. If there are none, I will call the Minister.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for explaining the situation. It is disappointing to hear his frustration, and I hope I can provide some level of comfort about the next steps. I will endeavour to work with him to find a solution to what he describes as an unacceptable situation for his constituents.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s core aim is to help everyone stay safe on British roads, which are some of the safest in the world. The DVSA is part of the Department for Transport. It is funded not by the general taxpayer but by the fees it charges to those who use its vital public services. The DVSA is responsible for delivering, in a normal year, around 2 million car theory tests, 1.9 million car driving tests and 70,000 large goods vehicle tests. Those tests help people into and through a lifetime of self-driving. They also help ensure the safe and efficient movement of freight around England, Wales and Scotland, by examining people who want to drive professionally.

As Members know, recently the Government set out a range of measures to increase the number of lorry drivers as we continue to build back better from the covid-19 pandemic. Like many parts of the Department for Transport, as well as the wider public sector, the DVSA is working hard to recover its services as we continue to emerge from the pandemic. It is prioritising the reduction of waiting times as quickly and as safely as possible for customers who want a car practical test. It is also increasing the number of vocational tests available for those who want to become lorry drivers. The opportunity for people to book a lorry driving test is something the Government, the DVSA and the right hon. Gentleman feel strongly about.

Let me turn to the DVSA’s operation in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I thank him for his detailed, albeit somewhat frustrated, explanation of events thus far. As he knows from his meetings with the DVSA to discuss his concerns, it has conducted vocational tests in Lerwick since October 2001. Module 1 motorcycle testing began in 2011. The DVSA conducted those tests from Anderson High School until 31 July 2021, when testing ceased because the landlord, Shetland Islands Council, had plans to redevelop the site. Testing stopped at the high school at the end of July this year, as the right hon. Gentleman explained.

Over the past six years, the DVSA, together with members of the council, has conducted an extensive search of the island. During that time, only two sites were identified as possible vocational and motorcycle module 1 testing locations: Ladies Drive, which is owned by Tulloch Developments, and Scatsta airport, which is owned by the council and became commercially available only in recent months. The Ladies Drive site was preferred by motorcycle and vocational trainers, as Scatsta airport is some 25 miles from Lerwick.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware from the many discussions he has had with the DVSA, the DVSA considered the Tulloch site but rejected it because the construction cost to make it operationally suitable was too high, in addition to the significant annual lease cost, which was disproportionate to the number of tests that would be conducted. When taking into account the construction cost, 10 years of capitalised rent and rates plus associated fees, the Tulloch scheme would cost in excess of £1 million. That does not balance cost or manage public money responsibly, even when taking account of the Government’s priority to increase the number of lorry drivers.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As I indicated in my speech, when the costs were subsequently made known to me, they seemed higher than I would have expected. I was not party to the negotiations or discussions. I was told that the specification would have made it twice as thick as any other road in Shetland in terms of the tarmac to be laid. I think that there is more opportunity here to interrogate the work that has been done to get to these figures. That requires the DVSA to engage, instead of just saying, “That’s the cost, and we are not going to explain anything more.”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. While there are considerable infrastructure costs in ensuring that the surface is suitable for the turning of very heavy trucks that would be required, there were also other costs for rent and associated fees, as I am sure he can appreciate. That said, I am confident that my colleague in the other place, Baroness Vere, would be willing to consider providing further detail on costs and, potentially, alternative sites if the right hon. Gentleman would like to discuss the matter further.

However, speed is of the essence. As the right hon. Gentleman will surely agree, his constituents are missing out on opportunities to become lorry drivers and to drive motorcycles, and we must ensure that a resolution is found in the swiftest order to relieve that burden on the Shetland isles.

The site at Scatsta airport is the more viable and affordable option. The DVSA met the council to discuss the possible use of the site. The initial negotiations were very positive. The council actively supported the DVSA in marking out the off-road manoeuvring area and in placing a container with equipment on site in anticipation of a mutually beneficial agreement. I am assured that the issue is unclear to the DVSA, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could explain. The council had a change of heart in August and told the DVSA that it was withdrawing from negotiations about the use of the Scatsta site as a testing facility.

This was a considerable disappointment to both the DVSA and its customers, given the amount of work that had been done. It meant a withdrawal of practical testing facilities on Shetland. The DVSA is committed to exploring and exhausting all possible options to retain the testing service on Shetland. It submitted a planning application to Shetland Islands Council for permission to use the vacant site for practical driver testing. Despite there being no other current use for the site, the council has told the DVSA that it will not recommend planning permission. In fact, it offered the DVSA a refund of its application fee if it would withdraw the application.

The Minister is being very generous with her time. I appreciate that this is not part of her ministerial brief, as it rests with her noble Friend, but can the Minister tell me at what point the DVSA actually started investigating the Scatsta site? It is apparent to me from my dealings with the Minister and the agency that it had been well sighted on the difficulties that it had identified with the Ladies brae site in Lerwick. The point about the application for planning permission is that that went in only when I pointed out that nobody has done anything to obtain change of use permission.

I hope that later in my speech, I will be able to answer that particular question. I will, of course, write to the right hon. Gentleman should he require further clarification.

We do not know the motivation behind the offer to refund the application fee in return for withdrawing the planning application, but Members will not be surprised to learn that the DVSA declined and awaits the official outcome of its application. Given the council’s unusual offer, the expectation that the DVSA will receive a favourable planning outcome is low. If Shetland Islands Council does reject the DVSA’s reasonable application to use otherwise redundant land at Scatsta airport, it will, with full support of the Department, push for full transparency in this matter.

The DVSA has been co-operative and transparent throughout its endeavours to secure new facilities on Shetland. It has shared all information with the right hon. Gentleman and others when it has been legally able to so. It is the DVSA’s firm view that the intransigency of the council is the only impediment to it being able to reinstate its vital public services to the residents of the island of Shetland. I hardly feel that I need to remind anyone of the urgent need for more lorry drivers in the current climate.

I am afraid I will not give way any further, simply because of time restrictions. The position on motorcycle testing on Shetland also depends on securing a new site for conducting the off-road part of the test. Although the DVSA understands that the island’s sole motorcycle trainer has ceased his trade, without a testing facility there is no incentive for anyone else to offer such training on Shetland.

In the absence of a test facility on Shetland, the nearest venue for candidates in Lerwick is Orkney, which is about 120 miles and a five-hour journey by ferry away. The next nearest option is Aberdeen, which is around 224 miles away. That is not what the DVSA wants for its customers or for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Shetland Islands Council has the opportunity to help the DVSA and its customers, who are also the council’s residents. I hope it will not pass up that opportunity.

Car practical driving tests remain at Lerwick on an occasional basis, as has always been the case, meaning that tests are conducted when there is a substantial customer demand. However, the waiting time for a test there is 24 weeks. We recognise that that is not ideal. In September, a new in-house contract for the DVSA to run the theory driving test came into operation. Starting tomorrow, I am pleased to say, the new theory test centre opens in Lerwick, and two more will open next month, at Mid Yell and Symbister. While the DVSA regrets the slight delay in opening the theory test centres, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that having three test centres, where there was previously just one, amounts to a significant service improvement.

In conclusion, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that the DVSA is working hard for the people of Shetland to provide vital public services. I thank him for his hard work in this area over many years, and I will leave him to have the last word. However, I want to assure him that I will continue to work alongside him in finding a solution.

The Minister, whom I thank for her answer, did suggest that Shetland Islands Council has been intransigent in this. I think it is fair to put it on the record that Shetland Islands Council first told DVSA in 2016 that it would be withdrawing from the site. It has extended the provision multiple times and, indeed, I understand that it has offered the provision of the materials to construct the site at Ladies brae. It has been exceptionally co-operative in what is the core function of the DVSA, not of Shetland Islands Council.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.