To consider the petition 'Delay the all Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle policy for two years'
Report of the Cabinet Member Customer and Regulatory Services
The petition organiser, Mr David Chambers, presented the petition on behalf of the taxi drivers of Cheltenham. He noted that when the consultation on the policy had taken place, there had been no mention of a specific implementation date. Drivers had assumed that the requirement would be to upgrade when they were due for renewal, but this turned out not to be the case. Many drivers had bought new vehicles just prior to that and were still paying for them, making it impossible to save for another.
When the council did make its decision on the implementation date, this was done on the basis that it would give drivers time to adjust, but the last 18 months had changed the situation entirely. For over a year, drivers had received virtually no income due to the pandemic. The officer report cited government support for taxi drivers, but self-employed grants had been based on the previous year’s profits, and since there had been a decline in the trade in general, previous profits were negligible and so were the grants.
He stressed that this was not an attempt by taxi drivers to avoid the policy, and that they understood why it was happening. They just expected a greater degree of sympathy from councillors, and to give them the chance to adjust to the change given the wider circumstances. He noted that the officer report suggested that drivers could work for a private hire company instead, which was not financially viable since it would cost drivers an extra £7-8k a year.
In response, the Cabinet Member Customer and Regulatory Services acknowledged that the number of signatures to the petition showed the importance of the issue and the strength of feeling around it. He would happily meet with more members of the trade to hear their concerns. He highlighted the need to consider other parties’ interests too, noting that for disabled passengers in London, Birmingham or anywhere in the West Midlands, every single taxi was wheelchair accessible. Cheltenham should aspire to this too, especially considering the presence of a National Star campus in the town, which meant that it had a relatively large disabled population.
The 2010 Equality Act did not specifically require universal WAVs, but it did require the council to advance equality for all individuals in the exercise of its functions. As such, there was a risk of legal challenge on this basis if the authority failed to implement it. 40,000 taxi drivers had so far made the switch, which was a clear majority of all those in England, including 66 in Cheltenham. The date of implementation was agreed shortly after the consultation in November 2018, and the decision was called-in by Overview & Scrutiny and approved by all councillors shortly afterwards. Engagement with all concerned parties would be genuine, but needed to start from a position of equality and respect for disabled people, as was seen elsewhere across the country.
· One Member noted that the WAVs that the drivers were required to purchase were all diesel vehicles, and asked whether the Cabinet Member was concerned that drivers would once again be required to upgrade them to electric vehicles in a few years’ time. The Cabinet Member Customer and Regulatory Services responded that the council’s goal of all electric vehicles by 2030 meant this certainly needed to be addressed, but the problem was that wheelchair-accessible electric cars were currently prohibitively expensive. He believed that they would fall sharply in price over time as they became more widely available, and that he would address this in the future alongside the Cabinet Member Climate Emergency.
· One Member asked what the process would be around any possible change to the implementation date. They had a lot of sympathy for the drivers’ views, and wanted to know whether Council would input on the date or whether it would be a Cabinet decision. The Cabinet Member Customer and Regulatory Services responded that Council had already approved the policy, and that any tweaks would be relayed to councillors. Nothing was off the table, and he was open to any creative suggestions about how best to suit various interests. He stressed that he had not suggested that the date might change.
· A member asked about the process for review. The Legal Officer explained that the decision regarding this policy was an executive function. Any decision to delay the implementation of the policy was a matter for Cabinet and any decision is potentially subject to called-in by O&S.
· One Member suggested that it was a shame to only have 15 minutes to discuss such an important issue, but that they were pleased with the quality of debate. The taxi community was an important part of the town and members must listen carefully to what they want. If there were grounds for deferral, it should go back to Cabinet and then to Council.
· One Member agreed with the need to take into account a wide range of interests. They suggested that while all members would agree that delivering accessibility for disabled people was hugely important, it was also true that the pandemic had seriously affected the taxi trade, and members needed to show common sense and empathy.
· One Member noted that the policy was an example of the council’s equality duty in practice. If a disabled person were to turn up at a taxi rank and there were no WAVs available, they would be being discriminated against. They acknowledged that it was difficult to fund the shift without government grants, and suggested that there should be more support for drivers to help them transition.
· One Member stressed that while the council’s duties under the Equality Act were clear, they needed to also be mindful of the extraordinary circumstances of the last 18 months and its impact on drivers, who had been deprived of their livelihood almost overnight. They thanked the petition organiser and signatories for bringing the matter before Council, and suggested that the council needed to be open-minded and consider a delay.
· One Member added that they supported the policy, but that it was important to acknowledge the unprecedented last 18 months and engage with wider partners to hear their concerns. The government’s grant schemes had significant gaps in terms of who received support.
The Mayor moved to a vote, where it was unanimously:
1. It be noted that the Cabinet Member for Customer & Regulatory Services continues to support the policy implementation on 31 December 2021, but his intention is to continue engagement and dialogue with members of the public, including through the Accessibility Forum, and with members of the licensed trade.