The Cabinet at Cheltenham Borough Council voted in a new set of policies governing the licensing of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles on 6 March. Amongst ten different policy changes is the mandating of all hackney carriages in Cheltenham to be wheelchair accessible by 2021.
The all-WAV policy means that 186 Cheltenham taxi licence holders would lose their grandfather rights to keep their saloon taxis. The trade maintains that this would eliminate customer choice, and put them out of business – thus eroding any value in the existing plates they have on their saloon vehicles.
However this notion was brushed aside by the council in favour of the motivation behind the policy as instigated by Cllr Andrew McKinlay, Cabinet member for development and safety, which he claims “includes the ending of grand-father rights to allow all taxis to be wheelchair accessible by 2021, to comply with the Equalities (sic) Act 2010, and tackle disability discrimination.”
The taxi trade staged a demonstration involving around 60 taxis circling the municipal offices in the Promenade on Thursday 8 March, two days after the Cabinet meeting, to protest against the move and show their discontent with the council’s approval of the plan. At this stage the local Hackney Carriage Association, which is affiliated to the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, asked for assistance from the National Association.
With very little time under council protocol, the NPHTA put in an application on behalf of their members for a call-in of the all-WAV policy to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The application was accepted and a meeting was called of this Committee on Wednesday evening, 28 March.
During the proceedings, NPHTA director Donna Short was called upon to give evidence along with Cllr McKinlay, licensing team leader Louis Krog and Chair of the Licensing Committee, Cllr David Willingham.
Points of discussion included the difficulties posed to hackney proprietors in finding wheelchair accessible vehicles that will also meet Cheltenham’s existing criteria, including no taxis licensed under five years old, all taxis must be silver, and all diesel taxis must meet Euro 6 emissions.
Despite a 12-week consultation period during which a questionnaire was posted on the council website but not actually sent out, only 39 responses were returned; and the majority of those responses did not accord with the new policy – as did not the vote of the Licensing Committee, who voted in favour of retaining grand-father rights and the choice of a mix of taxis.
However, it was expressed by one Committee member that if “even one wheelchair user was discriminated against [by denying them access to a taxi], then the council is discriminating against all disabled passengers.”
Following a 2½-hour meeting, and after due consideration of the evidence presented at the call-in, the Overview and Scrutiny Committee resolved unanimously to:
1. Confirm the called-in decision made by Cabinet on 6 March 2018 regarding the review of taxi and private hire licensing policy without modification;
2. Note that there will be further consultation with the taxi drivers on appropriate mitigation issues and request that these be in a spirit of constructive dialogue;
3. Request the Chair to send a letter to Alex Chalk MP and Laurence Robertson MP requesting them to raise the matter with government and ask when the Minister would be clarifying government policy on this issue; and
4. Request a report is brought back to Overview and Scrutiny in the Autumn 2018.
What this means is that there is now the opportunity for further discussion on the issue of mandating all-wheelchair accessible taxis in Cheltenham. It is up to the taxi trade, and both their local association and the National Association, to ensure that all possible arguments on both sides are set out clearly for consideration and open discussion amongst all relevant parties.