Cabbies close ranks; The taxi drivers behind protests which have caused gridlock in Newcastle have a message for the council, reports SEAN SEDDON.
MEET the taxi drivers willing to bring streets to a halt to protect their livelihoods. Newcastle's black cab drivers are taking their fight to the council, which they accuse of devastating the city's hackney carriage trade.
Drivers say Newcastle has seen an influx of private hire drivers, particularly working for Uber, which has squeezed the market for traditional cabs.
Coupled with a reduction in ranks around the city centre, the men behind the Newcastle Hackney Carriage Drivers Association (NHCDA) claim they are being forced to take drastic action to make themselves heard.
On August 23, drivers descended on the taxi rank between Eldon Square and Haymarket, causing serious congestion on the surrounding roads.
Just five after that, they did the same again on a smaller scale, followed a day later by another, larger, event - and they haven't ruled out more civil disobedience. NHCDA spokesman John Hirst, 57, who has been driving cabs in Newcastle for 30 years, said: "We want to apologise to people who have been disrupted but we feel ignored by Newcastle City Council.
"We don't have an alternative - we need to exercise our right to go to work and take this action because people's livelihoods are at risk here."
The NHCDA, which represents over half of the city's roughly 800 hackney carriage drivers, insists it is not "protesting", instead referring to the action as "go to work days" which highlight the lack of rank spaces.
The tactic sees drivers turn up to one rank and, because it's already full of other drivers, they go on to the closest one. When that's full too, they return to the first rank, overwhelming the roads between the two and causing gridlock.
Meetings have taken place between the NHCDA and the council but the drivers are prepared for a long fight and have organised formally under the chairmanship of Mohammad "Inty" Youssaf.
Newcastle has seen a rise in the number of private hire drivers on the road.
The required test a driver needs to do has also been simplified, which NHCDA says encouraged an unsustainable influx in to the industry. By law, local authorities are not able to impose a cap on the number of licences issued. But the group says Turn to Page 26 From Page 25 this has put strain on existing drivers who have seen new drivers eat into their trade, legally and, they claim, illegally.
Mr Hirst said: "Having lots of cars around might be a good thing for passengers because you're less likely to have to wait a long time.
"But we've seen private hires parked around the city centre plying for trade which hasn't been pre-booked, which they're not legally allowed to do.
"What that means for passengers is if that car is in an accident, the insurance won't cover you if you're hurt.
"The locality test has been massively stripped back too, making it much easier for drivers to get a licence.
"We have a 'quantity over quality' situation going on in Newcastle." Rank space near The Gate has become a contentious issue between the NHCDA and the council. Spaces on Newgate Street, which drivers said was one of their most important spots to find work, have been removed in favour of a reduced number of spaces on nearby Clayton Street.
Mr Hirst said: "We had a perfectly good, working rank outside The Gate which was removed without any consultation.
"The council have made it much harder for us to pick up passengers at busy spots and harder to move around the city due to lanes we can't use and roads we can no longer turn onto.
"All it has done is damaged our livelihoods and push up fares for passengers."
The council says the Newgate Street rank was removed to aid the reliability of buses.
Arlene Ainsley, cabinet member for transport and air quality, said: "The council is committed to working with the taxi trade to develop locations that work in the best interests of all road users.
"We are aware that some hackney carriage drivers have raised concerns about other drivers illegally plying for hire. This is an issue Newcastle City Council takes very seriously. In cooperation with Northumbria Police, test purchases and spot checks are frequently carried out and prosecutions sought where necessary.
"Changes to the Locality Test were introduced in 2015 following Government recommendations. The interview has been redeveloped with emphasis toward licensing responsibility, legislation and driver conditions, in addition to disability and vulnerability issues, passenger safety and customer service, medical fitness, road safety and expected compliance.
"It also continues to include local geography assessment."
From left, John Hirst, Urfan Hussain, Mohammad Youssaf, Richard Ahmed and Mark Cowie outside The Gate where a taxi rank has been removed
Drivers say the taxi rank outside The Gate was one of their most
An unofficial taxi protest takes place in Newcastle