Easing of law on Northern Ireland's private cabs will be 'open season for rogue taxis'
New rules that allow people to hail any Belfast taxi after midnight at weekends will lead to a free-for-all, it has been claimed.
Concerns have also been raised over safety after the Department of the Environment (DoE) said taxis could be flagged down on the streets of the city between midnight on Friday and Saturday nights and 6am the following mornings.
The regulations, which come into effect in June, represent a change in the long-standing policy in Northern Ireland where only so-called 'black cabs' can be hailed, and all private hire taxis must be pre-booked.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said he was "modernising and improving" taxi laws by making the change, which will apply within a two-mile radius of the city centre.
"In effect, these changes will mean that people will get a much better taxi service," he added.
But black taxi driver Kieran Reilly said his colleagues are "very angry" about the "ridiculous" changes.
"They're turning Belfast into a free-for-all with this new rule; it will be open season in the city centre," he said.
"And, in certain areas, Belfast will be like a great big car park on Friday and Saturday nights.
"This change was made because of safety concerns but it will be a magnet for any Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to come into town and pretend to be a taxi."
Mr Reilly feared the new rules could also breed discrimination. "If you go to a taxi rank it's on a first come first served basis. But under the new rules, drivers don't have to do that; they can pick and choose their jobs for bigger fares.
"There's also going to be a problem with local taxis heading into the city centre for the so-called rich pickings and leaving the public in the outer areas with no taxis."
Mr Reilly added: "We have nothing against private taxi drivers, but a fair system must be in place."
A private hire cab driver, who asked not to be named, said Belfast was "finally moving with the times".
"The public want taxis on demand so this is a good thing from their point of view," he said.
Kieran Harte, general manager for Uber Belfast, which enables customers to book a taxi using a mobile app, said the company was "currently assessing the impact" on its business.
"Fundamentally, we do not believe that this new regulation will help to address the need for a more reliable means of transport," he said.
"It will raise prices for consumers through a lack of competition and make it harder for new technology to thrive in Belfast."
Belfast High Sheriff Jim Rodgers said he was concerned about the safety of individuals, particularly women.
"Intoxicated individuals don't look for the plates which legitimate taxis should have," he said.
"I'd be worried that a young woman on her own would get into a vehicle and then discover that it's not a taxi at all and come to a bad end.
"I'm not sure if this is the right road to go down. On Friday and Saturday nights it's absolute bedlam, particularly around the Odyssey, and I also worry that the city centre could become a car park."
Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo said the move was long overdue, but added that the two-mile Belfast zone "could be confusing".
"In any big cities where taxis are an essential means of transport, people take it for granted they can hail them anywhere without having to book in advance or walk to a taxi rank," Ms Lo said.