Last week the Conservatives introduced new fees for taxi drivers and the businesses they work for by 20%.
They did this knowing that this was a large and sudden impact on these local businesses, and they also admitted that this would lead to an increase in fares for taxi users.
The process leading up to the debate and decision being approved was typically shambolic of Welwyn Hatfield Council. Information provided to councillors to enable them to make an informed decision was insufficient, contradictory and in the most part, absent all together.
Councillors were told that fares needed to go up to cover a shortfall in the ring-fenced budget of the taxi “hackney carriage office”. We were not told why there was a shortfall to cover.
Tory councillors voiced their surprise there was any need to debate the issue at all, raising a preference to get home to their dinner than debate something that will affect all residents of Welwyn Hatfield.
Yet again, we have a poorly planned out policy pushed through by Tories who seem to have little regard for Welwyn Hatfield residents or small businesses.
So what actually happened?
In January this year, the Environmental Overview and Scrutiny Committee received a report requesting that the legal process was started in order to raise the licensing fees for taxis. Three price increases were put forward: 15%, 17.5% and 20%.
Each of the price increases was compared to the possible costs over the next few years. The 15% increase was projected to produce a shortfall in the taxi licensing budget (not enough money), the 17.5% increase was forecast to create a balance (just the right amount of money) and the 20% increase was predicted as producing a surplus (more money than was needed).
Even at this meeting, which normally deals with bin collections and grass cutting, councillors were not told why there was a shortfall. Tellingly, the matter was not put before the Councils committee that deals with finance and budgeting.
Despite this, the view was taken that it was reasonable to look at raising fees so the committee agreed that the consultation process required for increasing fees should be started.
The consultation took place and predictably, the taxi trade responded emphatically, saying it wasn’t fair, and that if anything, they didn’t receive the service they paid for as is. The consultation finished, and at any point thereafter, the council could have then have held a meeting of all councillors to come to a decision.
Crucially, given the issue included the prospect of fares going up for the general public, they left it til now. After the elections took place, and a meeting was hastily arranged with a single piece of paper ‘explaining’ to newly elected councillors what this was all about.
Somehow, without any explanation – between the meeting taking place in January and the final vote last week, the three different options were narrowed down to just one, the highest one of 20%.
This was the price increase that was predicted to produce more money than was needed. It was not clear from the minutes taken back in January, or the report put to the full council last week, when, how and why the 20% increase was chosen.
Because of all of this, Labour opposed these fee increases last week. Several Labour Ccouncillors asked why fees were going up seemingly without explanation.
Cllr John Fitzpatrick warned of the danger of overcharging taxi drivers and operators to the point that illegal levels of profit were made.
Cllr Kieran Thorpe queried how the council had seemingly gotten this so wrong, how a relatively simple process left nearly all councillors debating and deciding something they had not been given relevant information on.
While the tone of the discussion had remained refreshingly civil throughout, what didn’t change was this Conservative council refusing to answer these points, and refusing to accept there was a problem.
The decision to go ahead with the 20% rise was carried. Only Labour voted against, though you got the impression that no-one, tory or lib-dem really quite knew what they were voting for.
Local taxi drivers now face increased fees, way above the rate of inflation.
Local residents now face higher fares when using taxis, including those who may need to use taxis to transport disabled or vulnerable children to school.
All this as a result of a Tory administration that doesn’t listen, and in some cases simply doesn’t understand, the issues that they make decisions on.
This goes beyond party politics, as an opposition, we take our responsibilities seriously, and chief of these is to keep trying to get through to this Council that sometimes it’s simply about doing things properly.