The Environment Minister has been slammed by a leading taxi firm after he announced that new regulations have been delayed for a year.
Alex Attwood had previously said that ‘single tier licensing’ for taxis would be introduced this September — but now this will be delayed until September 2014.
Single tier licensing would allow members of the public to legally hail private taxis on the street, without having to pre-book them as currently required.
At the moment, only public hire black taxis can be legally flagged down. The move had been welcomed as good news for customers, as it would increase both safety and convenience — but black taxi firms were furious at the prospect of increased competition.
Bill Peden, managing director of the East Belfast Taxi Group, said the 12-month delay had been made virtually inevitable after the minister decided to introduce the new regulations in stages — in the wrong order.
He said that the introduction of single tier licensing before making meters compulsory in all private taxis would have allowed illegal drivers to take advantage of customers.
“I believe that all taxis should have a regulated meter,” he said.
“Since we introduced them a few years ago, I don’t believe we have had any complaints about fares.
“He didn’t think it through. Now I think the minister has finally seen that by putting the cart before the horse, he was creating an opportunity for rogue taxis to charge what they wanted.”
The Department of the Environment said it had listened to concerns during a consultation process.
Mr Attwood said: “My strategy has been do the best for the taxi industry. This has meant, despite some political criticism, that I slowed down the roll-out of taxi reform, to reduce cost and administrative burden.”
“I have listened to the concerns raised in the consultation process. I have listened to the environment committee. Therefore, I have decided that rather than bringing in single tier licensing this year, it will be implemented in 2014 along with a suite of legislation to reform the Northern Ireland taxi industry.”
- Environment Minister Alex Attwood
Shake-up a long journey for cabs
The process of reforming the taxi industry in Northern Ireland has been rumbling along for the best part of a decade.
Illegal private taxis used to be a significant problem and left customers uninsured or in dangerous hands.
In part, it was a legacy of the Troubles, when getting home late at night from Belfast city centre by foot was a journey often best avoided.
Public hire services had also emerged in parts of the city as an alternative to buses, which were often hijacked and set alight.
Black taxi companies provided employment in areas where few firms wanted to set up shop.
Legally, private hire cars need to be booked in advance — though a blind eye has usually been turned — while public hire cabs are flagged down in the street.
And only black taxis are obliged to have a meter.
Now the two sides of the industry are poised to be in direct competition at a time when rising fuel costs are hitting taxi drivers hard in the pocket.
Black taxi drivers are furious that private hire cars were to be allowed to pick up customers on the street from this September — a system known as single tier licensing.
On June 4, about 200 black taxis caused traffic disruption by driving slowly around Belfast city centre in protest at what the drivers see as a direct threat to their livelihood.
Sean Beckett, chairman of the Public Hire Coalition, last night welcomed the news that single tier licensing was now being delayed for another year.
“We are more than happy with the delay, but it would be better if was stopped altogether,” he said.
“This would only have affected Belfast city centre — nowhere else in Northern Ireland — and we will continue to lobby the minister.”