‘We’re on the breadline’: Furious taxi drivers to strike in row with council
- Credit: ARCHANT
Surviving on income slashed by Covid and risking his life in a profession with high virus death rates, Brandon-based taxi driver Marc Barnes has worked all through the pandemic but says he is living close to the breadline.
And the Buzz Cars boss is not alone - several of his colleagues, from across Bury St Edmunds, Haverhill, and Newmarket, have resorted to Universal Credit to make ends meet while scores of drivers have left the trade for good.
“We’re hemorrhaging drivers,” he said. “Some of us are on the breadline - yes, we can get Universal Credit, and that’s been helpful in some cases.
"But my turnover is down by 87% - and I’ve not stopped working. We’re all struggling, big time.”
During Covid, workers at several West Suffolk cab companies claim they were not paid support grants under the various Government schemes.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Mr Barnes to West Suffolk Council (WSC) revealed just 14 drivers had been paid grants as of March 26, 2021 - a year into the pandemic.
Relations soured further after a separate FOI revealed the licensing department - which drivers claim has been “poor” at communicating during Covid - was employing two agency workers both costing in the region of £1,400 a week.
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Mr Barnes said this was a “kick in the teeth”, given drivers’ deepening financial problems.
Next Monday, Hackney Carriage drivers from Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds are going on strike over "costly" adjustments to vehicle testing, a 10-year age rule on cars, and a phasing out of ‘saloon’ cars from taxi ranks in favour of wheelchair accessible vehicles.
Many fear the latter could incur huge bills, push drivers further into debt and bankrupt businesses.
Council bosses said at the end of July that they had paid out 85 support grants to taxi and private hire drivers. They said the authority sent emails to make people aware, posted on social media about how to apply, and listed contact details on its website if anyone was unsure.
Mr Barnes and several of his colleagues claim they did not receive emails asking them to apply - and when they followed advice to contact officials, their emails either bounced back, or drivers were directed back to the council’s website.
Others did receive emails and were provided with the council’s standard initial instalment of £1,200 and just over £500 as a second payment.
Specific grants were set up for taxi and private hire drivers in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Those in England were advised to apply for a combination of schemes including the Additional Restrictions Grant, which opened from January to March 2021.
Responding to concerns about communication within licensing, a WSC spokesman said they communicate with taxi drivers through email addresses and phone numbers they supply.
Where emails have bounced back to the team, they said they made every effort to obtain new email contacts - adding that on occasion, they have been refused.
Bosses confirmed they have two agency workers in the licensing team, adding: “It is necessary to ensure there is the right specialist support in the department in the short term.
“Given the pandemic and the demands this has presented to the team, it has been essential we have these agency workers in place to avoid creating a backlog.
“However, we have a new structure agreed for the licensing team and will be in the process of recruiting into this in the coming weeks.”
Bosses added that the new 10-year age rule and mandatory bi-annual taxi tests - which drivers pay for out of their own pockets and say are similar to MOTs but include VAT - are about “safety and integrity” of the trade.
"The mid-term taxi test is an important test bearing in mind how many miles a taxi does although it can be carried out at the same time as an MOT if the dates allow," the council spokesman added.
In late July, around 30 drivers stormed a Newmarket council meeting to lobby councillors over another round of changes they fear could force them all into using wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs).
Hackney Carriage driver Mark Goodchild, of Goodchild Cars, fears this could push vehicle prices up by as much as £20,000 - and claimed proposals were dropped on them without proper consultation.
"These WAVs are going to cut our business in half, you can’t get in those vehicles,” he added.
Jon Last, of Bury firm Getaway Cars, added: “There are a lot of elderly people with serious mobility problems that can’t get into those vehicles and they’re not being provided for.”
Alex Williams, of Pride Cars in Haverhill, said many passengers already choose saloon cars over WAVs in taxi ranks (where Hackney Carriages do most of their business) as they are easier to access.
He claimed a phasing out of saloons could give rise to unlicensed traders and went as far as to warn: “I can see this ending the taxi trade in West Suffolk.”
Council bosses have now pledged to carry out a review to ensure the service matches the needs of all taxi users.
They added that the requirement for all new vehicles to be wheelchair accessible is an existing policy that has been in place since 2019.
“Taxis and private hire vehicles are a vital link to transport and it is important that disabled users have access to them,” a spokesman added.
“This is the 21st century. Is it right that someone who uses a wheelchair should be limited or should have to specify they need a vehicle that is wheelchair accessible?
"Or should they, like any other taxi passenger, simply be able to book a vehicle, get in it, and be taken on their journey?”
Andy Drummond, WSC’s cabinet member for regulation, added: “As a council we want to ensure that all people in our communities are able to access services they need and ensuring that the taxis licensed for use in our area meet the needs of disabled people is essential.
"We are committed to supporting taxi drivers achieve high standards of service, ensuring our communities have confidence in the professionalism and integrity of the trade.
“We have announced we will be carrying out a review to ensure the service matches the needs of all taxi users and that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and can use taxis which are often crucial in helping them live independently.
He added: "In helping shape this policy this review will look at the challenges faced on all sides, as well as the current law and guidance on disability discrimination as well as best practice."
Bosses said they hope to carry out this review over the next month.