Blaby District Council is introducing a new school-trip only private hire licence to help meet rising demand for school transport services.
The licence allows private hire drivers to carry out dedicated school run journeys as part of a contract with Leicestershire County Council, the LEA (local education authority).
This is the first licence of its kind in Leicestershire and Blaby District Council is one of only around 30 or so licensing authorities out of 267 in the country to offer this option.
Like many LEAs the County is struggling to fulfil its obligations for school transport services, which mainly cater for SEN children. It is hoped this tailored licence will encourage people to sign up.
They would not carry out any other ‘taxi’ services and unlike a full private hire licence, the new licence has no requirement for the driver to take a Council test.
This involves passing a series of assessments including having knowledge of local roads, maths and receipt writing.
Applicants still need to pass ‘fit and proper person’ criteria, including meeting standards on driving ability, safeguarding, medical fitness and DBS checks.
Councillor Les Phillimore, Blaby District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Housing, Community and Environmental Services, said: "Leicestershire County Council is not alone in struggling to meet the demand for school transport services, so we hope by introducing this type of licence we could help to attract more drivers into the trade, supporting the County to deliver this valuable service.
"It may suit people with time on their hands who would like to offer a service to the community and would never have thought of applying for a private hire licence because they didn’t want to offer the usual ‘taxi’ services with some of the challenges that brings.
"I do want to stress however, this is not a shortcut to getting a private hire licence. We will maintain our stringent checks on applicants to make sure they are suitable for the role and of course we will ensure any vehicles meet our requirements for the job. The comfort and safety of the schoolchildren will be paramount."
Leicestershire County Council is fully behind the scheme as it has seen a 45% growth in demand for home-to-school transport over the last five years.
This is expected to continue to increase by around 6% each year based on current trends.
More than 50% of the current demand is met by the external taxi market and there is a genuine recognition of the need to work more closely with the market to support sustainable delivery of services.
Like many authorities, Leicestershire has experienced a significant decline in the number of licensed drivers and in some cases this has led to school transport contracts being handed back due to lack of available drivers.
Councillor Ozzy O’Shea, Leicestershire County Council Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, said: "We very much support the initiative taken by Blaby District Council as it will help with the national issue of driver shortages and assist us in increasing capacity in the home-to-school transport sector within Leicestershire. While this initiative helps smooth out the process of recruiting drivers, the safety and wellbeing of children remain our absolute priority, so all drivers remain subject to rigorous safeguarding checks."
Existing private hire operators are also behind the licence, which due to its restricted nature is quicker and cheaper to apply for.
Andy Mahoney is part of the 24/7 Ltd taxi group which has operators in Blaby District and is fully behind the scheme.
He said: "Taking children to school is an important part of the taxi industry, especially SEN children. Without that infrastructure these children cannot get to school safely and that can cause major issues.
"If people come to us and want to do school transport they would usually have to apply for a standard private hire driver licence. This means going on a course which could take 16 weeks and learning about taxi meters, counting change, local road knowledge and other stuff which they would never need to know just for school trips.
"This new licence makes the whole process easier and simpler and it means people are applying for and getting a licence for a job they want to do and are happy to do. I think this will make a massive difference and will serve District residents well. Importantly, Blaby District Council has made a huge step in safeguarding vulnerable children."