Taxi drivers rebel over cab order

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The Independent Online
THE BLACK taxi cab, as characteristic of London's transport system as the red bus or the Tube train, has expansionist ambitions on the rest of Britain. But it is a drive that is exercising the minds of drivers more than learning the 'Knowledge'.

Councils across the country are attempting to force cabbies to switch to the black cabs. Up to 80 councils are making it mandatory for licensed cabbies to drive them because they make it easier for passengers in wheelchairs to be carried in them.

Cabbies who refuse to buy the cabs, which cost around pounds 20,000, are warned that they face having their licences to operate revoked. Some have called the moves 'financial terrorism'.

After a series of expensive individual court battles against councils trying to impose the rule, drivers from all over the country will meet in Hull on Tuesday to decide whether to take their fight to the European Commission.

Rob Naylor, chairman of the Hull Taxi Association, organised the meeting after his city council imposed the black cab-only rule. He said: 'Every day we are discovering other areas that are facing the same problems. If we complain, they threaten to put us out of work.'

Mr Naylor says that cabbies believe alternative vehicles have equally good wheelchair access, are less expensive, and have a better resale value. Peugeot is already offering a version of its 405 model with a swivel seat for wheelchair passengers, a meter and a roof 'Taxi' sign. So-called 'people carriers' such as the Renault Espace are also considered suitable.

The cabbies accuse local authorities of ignoring a Department of Transport circular which stressed the need for flexibility and 'requirements to suit local conditions'.

Mr Naylor claimed the councils' proposals are also insensitive to the needs of disabled people. The two main types of black cabs do not provide access for every wheelchair user, he said. They are also less accessible for some partially disabled people, particularly the elderly with severe arthritis. In Hull, taxi drivers have been backed by many of the city's disabled groups.

The Department of Transport has refused to intervene in the dispute, saying that taxi licensing is for local decision.

If the case goes to Europe, it will be the drivers' second bite of the cherry. Drivers from Plymouth and the Wirral sought a ruling in 1982 complaining that a black cab-only rule was a breach of free trade. Then, the Commission decided not to rule against it on the grounds that the problem was not significant enough to warrant a decision. Jacques Delors, the EC President, warned that a Commission ruling might lead to London taxi operators switching to other types of vehicles.