TAXI ROW GOES NATIONAL AFTER 9,000 CHEAP LICENCES HANDED OUT
Local authorities up and down the country are finding drivers on their streets who have been granted licences hundreds of miles away in the city.
Wolverhampton has cornered the market after bosses sped up the online application process, ditched a local knowledge test and also slashed prices to £69 compared to an expected cost elsewhere of more than £200.
It has led to widespread criticism and some curious business practices, although the council insists the city offers the best cab licensing system in the UK.
It has emerged that the Labour-led authority has allowed firms to set up local ‘operating bases’, despite having no employees and no vehicles in the city.
And concerns have been raised after it was revealed that licences had been given to criminals and people accused of serious crimes.
Huge rise in number of taxi licences
The number of licences sold by the council rose from 852 in 2015 to 9,388 this year.
Over the period the number of firms licensed to operate in the city went up from 12 to 100, with 58 of them operating from one of just four addresses.
However, the majority of them have no presence in the city.
When reporters from The Times newspaper visited Wednesfield Cars’ office above a diner in Raynor Road, the firm’s boss said his was the only business based there.
However, Wolverhampton Council has registered 13 other cab companies to the same address.
And the vast majority of drivers licensed in Wolverhampton work elsewhere, with city paperwork popping up in places such as Cambridge, Stockport, Weymouth and Winchester.
Taxi drivers say their livelihoods have been put at risk by increased competition, while opposition leaders and other councils have questioned whether Wolverhampton Council’s safety checks are stringent enough.
Nottingham Council’s chief licensing officer, Richard Antcliff, accused Wolverhampton of exploiting a ‘farcical loophole’ in the regulations.
“Somewhere along the line, Wolverhampton has lost its moral compass,” he said.
Councillor Wendy Thompson, Wolverhampton Council’s opposition Tory leader, said: “They are putting cash flow first and public safety a distant second.”
The authority’s move has been extremely profitable. It made £2.2 million in 2017-18, up from just £263,000 in 2014-15.
But it has prompted fury among other councils, who say safeguarding has been undermined by the presence of ‘cross-border’ drivers on their roads.
Mrs Thompson described the authority’s policy as ‘scatter-gun’ and said: “You can see why other councils are angry about what is going on.”
“There are so many licences handed out by the city it is impossible for Wolverhampton to keep tabs on what is going on.”
The council’s licensing committee chairman, Councillor Alan Bolshaw, said the reason there were so many drivers licensed by the authority was that ‘we have the best licensing system in the UK’.
He added that all minicab operators in Wolverhampton were represented at their registered addresses by a digital recording system in the form of a box.
Taxi association: Council has made 'mockery' of system
Parmjit Singh, of the Wolverhampton Taxi Owners Association, said the council had just three enforcement officers to monitor more than 9,000 drivers, of which around 1,500 are thought to operate in the local area.
“The council has made a mockery of the whole system,” he said.
“There is no way they can know what is going on with all of these drivers spread around the country.
“They have lost control by giving out licences without conducting proper checks. It is the public that ends up being shafted.”
In November it emerged that the council gave a licence to a driver who had been prosecuted for fraud by Sandwell Council.
Meanwhile Hampshire Police said a driver in Southampton accused of raping a female passenger had been licensed in Wolverhampton.
It has also emerged that more than a dozen men from Rotherham – which was hit by a sex grooming scandal involving taxi drivers – have applied for Wolverhampton licences.
Five of them were refused licences by their home town council.
Wolverhampton Council’s system has received widespread criticism.
Earlier this month there was a mass protest outside the Civic Centre by cab drivers from Coventry and Birmingham, who accused the council of putting their livelihoods at risk by flooding the market with cheap and easy-to-gain licences.
The council insists it operates a ‘robust and rigorous’ vetting procedure for all drivers, and claimed its approach embraced digital technology, ‘consumer driven demand’ and offered ‘the best taxi licensing system in the UK’.
Councillor Bolshaw said the authority complied with legislation and was more advanced than the ‘very traditional and rigid licensing practices’ used by other councils.
He said the driver arrested in Southampton had lost his licence immediately, and that the council had worked extensively with Rotherham Council and the National Crime Agency ‘to ensure any drivers implicated in child exploitation do not gain Wolverhampton licences’.