A FURIOUS Woking taxi driver is now heavily in debt after toeing the council line on Euro5 emissions and NCAP-5 crash safety standards.
Andrew Ness, who has been in the trade for 37 years, was incensed when the council’s Executive passed an amendment on Thursday to once again delay this enforcement on Hackney cab and licensed vehicle driver regulations by another 11 months for those ‘who can prove hardship’.
Having already deferred it by two years, Andrew (below) said the council had assured him this ruling would be compulsory for all drivers from January 6 without exception, and those whose cars do not meet regulations would have to cease trading.
Andrew said: “I feel shafted – totally let down by the council. I took out a £7,000 loan to replace the perfectly good cab I owned outright with a lesser model to meet the standards for the January deadline.”
Approximately 200 other drivers have done the same.
He added: “We were told on numerous occasions it was 100 per cent going ahead.
“I lost out on around £1,500 for part exchanging my vehicle because it was a taxi, and I am more than £210 worse off every month.
“If I’d known the council were going to change the policy, I would have kept the superior car and not been in this debt.”
Self-employed Andrew, who has four children at home, receives Working Family and Child Tax Credits to help make ends meet. He is a driver who would have been classed as ‘in hardship’ and is now heavily in debt.
Council Tax Support and Housing Benefit are the other criteria qualifying Woking drivers to keep their existing vehicles for the extended period.
The council will not be compensating those who have already changed theirs.
Mike Daly, who owns First Choice, a school transport firm for children with special needs who Andrew works for, said: “I don’t understand how you can have a ‘two-tier’ taxi company. It wouldn’t happen in any other business. Rather than cash for questions, it seems to be votes for elections.
“For people like Andy who followed the rules that have been changed at the eleventh hour, there is no redress or compensation, unless they take it to a judicial review, which would cost hundreds of thousands. It doesn’t affect me but it does my drivers. It’s a matter of principle.
“Andy downgraded from a much better car, when he could have driven it for another 11 months.
“We are reliant that the information given by the council is true. They should never have allowed this to happen. The amendment was rushed through. This change stinks of party politics.”
The galleries in the council chambers were packed on Thursday when the amendment went through, although the cabbies were not permitted to speak at the meeting. A taxi driver himself, the new Conservative councillor for Maybury and Sheerwater, Mohammed Rashid, declared an interest and excused himself from the debate.
Addressing the Executive, Liberal Democrat Cllr Ken Howard, said: “I think this is misguided. The move was flagged up as far back as 2007 to take place in 2011 and it was extended by two years with the proviso then that there would be no further extensions.
“However, they [the drivers] did apply for another extension, which the licensing committee and working group looked at. Both advised against this.
“Now we have this proposal for an extension when in fact a good many drivers have already made the change. I would suggest you leave things alone and do not put this through.”
Lib Dem Cllr Ann-Marie Barker added: “What concerns me is that we had a process in place and now there’s a different policy to that advised by the licensing committee and cross-party task group.”
Having received a petition of 500 signatures requesting another deferral, the council set up the Taxi Trade Task Group in June to examine the policy to see if another delay was necessary. The group comprised licensing committee chairman, Cllr Carl Thomson, Cllr Anne Murray and Cllr Howard.
Cllr Barker continued her address: “Nearly 200 drivers have made these changes and have not been given the time to form a campaign.
“We really should start making some secure decisions. It has already been deferred from 2007 and the council bodies should stay with what they decide. My concern is that the process went through and everyone agreed. Now it has been overriden.”
However, the amendment was passed. “Their comments fell on deaf ears,” Andrew said. “I think it was done and dusted before it even went in there [the chambers]. I am right out of pocket.”
Even though Andrew has been paying his licence fee to, and working in, the borough for 37 years, the hardship provision states it is for drivers ‘resident in Woking’, whereas he lives in the borough of Guildford.
A legal expert said: “I would like to ask which statuary authority Woking has called on to say that only Woking residents on low incomes can have this extra time allowed.
“All taxi and private hire companies should have been informed of the meeting to discuss changes to their policy.”
In a statement, council leader Cllr John Kingsbury, said: “I understand the disappointment felt by those drivers who, whilst experiencing hardship, have already changed vehicles as their new licenses became due.
“The decision of the Executive to allow taxi and private hire drivers facing hardship more time to acquire new vehicles was not taken lightly.
“We considered carefully the representations we received and decided, on balance, that we should provide local drivers suffering hardship and whose licen-ces are due for renewal later in the year, some additional time.
“It is not, however, a relaxation of our standards. Drivers who do take advantage of the additional time will only get a license for a maximum of 11 months at a full year price, and will have to renew again in 2014.
“While this may have caused upset to some drivers, I hope those currently aggrieved by our decision will quietly reflect and understand that we have acted in the best interests of the wider taxi and private hire trade.”
The provision is to come into effect on Monday (December 2), in time to get new licences in place.
Anyone failing to renew theirs will have to cease trading.