The age at which taxis have to leave the roads of South Ribble could be about to be lowered - in spite of the fact that the borough council has only just consulted on an increase.
Concerns over air pollution prompted the sudden change in direction, with one councillor saying the authority had been made to look “silly”.
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The district’s licensing committee met to discuss a report into whether the maximum age of different types of vehicle should be equalised.
Currently, saloon cars can trade as taxis for up to eight years - but larger, wheelchair-accessible motors can operate for as long as twelve.
A special working group of councillors had recommended rounding up the legal age of saloon vehicles - and a consultation on the plan drew broad support from the public and taxi drivers.
But a last-minute intervention by the council’s own environmental health team prompted a rethink, because of the potential impact on air quality in the borough.
One of the department’s officers told members that the proposed change would “go against the aims of our own current and draft air quality plans, where we are looking at increasing low emission vehicles in the taxi fleet”.
Committee member Ken Jones said councillors should have been presented with the environmental information at the start of the process.
“My message to officers would be ‘please talk to each other’ before making us all look silly,” he said.
“But in the interests of natural justice, I don’t feel we can go back on a consultation exercise which resulted in agreement. It’s not fair and could be open to [legal] challenge,” Cllr Jones added.
He then requested that the age increase be accepted for now, with a pledge to reduce it in three years.
Cllr Paul Wharton also expressed his dismay that new information had been brought to the committee at a late stage - and he said the decision should be delayed as a result.
“I’m not sure how helpful this document is. Could we defer the report and potentially [undertake] a new consultation to get all the evidence in front of us?” Cllr Wharton asked.
An independent hackney driver in the borough, John Gregory, told the committee he felt taxi drivers were being “penalised for serving the public”.
“There are no age restrictions on buses or council vehicles. A refuse truck might not cover many miles in a day, but it [barely] switches its engine off. But for 70 percent of a taxi’s working day, the engine is turned off and we’re not polluting at all.”
But Mr. Gregory added that drivers just wanted “parity” across the fleet - whether that meant rounding the maximum ages up or down.
Tempers frayed at one point as Cllrs Jones and Wharton clashed over how to proceed, with Cllr Jones having to apologise for “intemperate language”.
Meanwhile, committee chair, David Suthers, bemoaned the time which had elapsed since the issue was first raised last year.
“It’s like a hot chestnut which keeps going round and round,” he said. “We’re all very aware of air pollution,” he said.
“We’re aware, but what are we doing about it?” asked the former cabinet member for public health, Cllr Jacqueline Mort.
South Ribble has established five Air Quality Management Areas - parts of the borough where there is particular concern about levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
On the casting vote of the chair, a proposal to defer the decision was delayed. The committee then voted by a majority of five to three to “note” the consultation response about increasing the maximum age - but immediately launch a further consultation on whether it should instead be lowered.
That decision will be taken by the full council at a later date.