Taxi drivers in Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket and Haverhill blast proposals for wheelchair accessible vehicles which they say could put livelihoods at risk
Taxi drivers in West Suffolk have been left furious - with some threatening to strike - over 'bombshell' proposals which could force them all into having wheelchair accessible vehicles.
Around 30 drivers from Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill turned up at a meeting of Newmarket Town Council on Monday to lobby councillors over the changes to cab licensing by West Suffolk Council, which they say could put them out of business.
Newmarket driver Gordon Playford, who has been working in the town for around 11 years, said: “The revised ruling in the taxi drivers’ handbook states all drivers buying new cars have to get wheelchair accessible vehicles, which means eight seaters at a price of at least £20,000 for secondhand, or £40,000 plus for new, and then no vehicle can go over the age of 10.
“By enforcing this, the council is going to put a lot of drivers out of business because we can’t survive it.”
He said there were already enough wheelchair accessible vehicles operating from the Newmarket rank to satisfy demand and added: “If the council insist on this, then without realising it they will be discriminating against another group in our community, the elderly and the frail, who cannot get into these vehicles because they are much higher.
“There are enough wheelchair accessible taxis out there already and there is the Dial-a-Ride service as well.
“The council has got to show some common sense here. There is just no need for this.”
A Bury St Edmunds taxi driver, who currently drives a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, echoed Mr Playford's thoughts and said demand for the vehicles was low.
“A lot of the regulars plan their route around town to end at Iceland and then come over to the rank with their shopping. They’ll walk past me if I’m at the front of the rank and use a normal taxi instead,” said Clifford, of CLM Taxis.
“In four years I’ve taken maybe a dozen customers in wheelchairs off the rank. Most people who use a wheelchair book rather than use the rank.”
Mark Florian, who also drives an accessible vehicle, said: “A lot of people don’t want to get in because of the step. I can pull the ramp out, but they don’t feel comfortable using it so they’ll walk by me and find a car instead.
“We are going to lose the elderly customers from the rank as a result of this and it is going to hurt us all. We will all lose custom.”
Other cabbies blasted the council for dropping the 'bombshell' without any notice or consultation.
It was dropped on us like a bombshell - Tony Cunningham
A driver who has been working on the Bury rank for more than 30 years, said: “The council is saying when my saloon car comes to the end of its life I’ll have to replace it with a wheelchair accessible vehicle, which will cost me at least £30,000.
“If my car got written off I’d be out of a job as I can’t afford a wheelchair accessible vehicle and due to health issues I couldn’t physically push a wheelchair up a ramp on to one.
“We’ve just been told it’s happening. There’s been no consultation.”
Fellow cabbie Tony Cunningham said he was not aware of the change until another driver lost his plate.
“No-one knew anything,” said Tony. “It was dropped on us like a bombshell.”
Newmarket drivers were so incensed they said they would consider strike action on some of the town's busiest race days over rules they felt were threatening their livelihoods.
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? - West Suffolk Council spokesman
Cllr Andy Drummond, West Suffolk Council cabinet member responsible for licensing, said: “Taxis are important to our economy. As a council, 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 are happy to continue to work with them to ensure their passengers can be confident they are using services that have the highest standard of safety and that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and can use taxis which are vital in helping them live independently.”
A spokesman for West Suffolk Council said: “Taxis and private hire vehicles are a vital link to transport and it is important that disabled users have access to them.
“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?
“This is what we are looking at in more detail to ensure that this vital service isn’t unwillingly discriminating against some of our residents and visitors.
“We will be carrying out a review to ensure the service matches the needs of all taxi users.
“We appreciate the important role that taxis play in the local economy, supporting residents and visitors who rely on taxis to help them get out and about across our district.
“We are committed to supporting taxi drivers achieve high standards of service and are happy to continue to work with them to ensure their passengers can be confident they are using services that have the highest standard of safety and that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and can use taxis which are vital in helping them live independently.”