TAXI DRIVERS across Wokingham are using foodbanks to sustain their families, which they say was caused by a lack of support from the council during the pandemic.
In June, members of the Wokingham Borough Hackney Drivers Association called for the borough council to take a more lenient approach with licence fees.
At the time, Muhammed Arshad, who chaired the Association, said: “Rather than giving us some relief, the council is forcing us to pay for non-urgent courses, while we are out of a job and not making any money. If we don’t, we’d face license suspensions.”
Now, Mr Arshad has stepped down from the Association and has decided to permanently end his taxi career in Wokingham.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “We’ve tried to find a solution but the council has offered no support at all.
“They made us take online courses during lockdown, which can cost £20 to £50. We’re not working and they’re pushing people to the limit.”
Mr Arshad added: “I know many drivers who are the only breadwinners, and they’re now looking to foodbanks and Universal Credit for help.”
He said the closure of taxi ranks on Broad Street worsened the situation.
“They closed all the ranks and didn’t have any arrangements in place for us when they installed the barriers,” he said. “Now Uber has taken over completely.”
He said that although trade should be picking up, Uber has moved some of its London drivers into the area and local taxis are losing out.
“I can’t do any business in Wokingham, I might make £20 or £30 a day — last year a good day would be £100 to £150.
“We just can’t cover the running costs.”
Instead of ferrying people, Mr Arshad said many drivers have turned to delivery work instead.
“People are working for Deliveroo and Amazon. At the moment I’m doing food deliveries — there are not many jobs available.”
Cllr Rachel Burgess, Labour councillor for Norreys, sits on the Licencing and Appeals Committee within Wokingham Borough Council (WBC).
She said: “It is not surprising that Wokingham’s taxi drivers feel let down by WBC. For too long there has been a dearth of genuine engagement from the council on the many challenges facing our drivers.
“It is clear that WBC has failed to take appropriate action to support taxi drivers after their income plummeted during lockdown.
“And their earnings are still significantly suppressed today due to the lack of major public events and social gatherings.”
Cllr Burgess added: “While the council could have been considering the relaxation of payment deadlines, suspending training and other charges, extending the permitted age limits of vehicles and more, in reality the WBC Licensing Committee has not even met once to discuss these options.
“Three of the last four Licensing Committee meetings have been postponed or cancelled. To add insult to injury the Licensing Committee in July was cancelled due to lack of business. Is this any way to treat our taxi drivers who are in desperate need of support?
“Even before Covid-19 took hold, actions that were agreed with the trade almost a year ago by WBC have not been completed, or even begun to be reviewed.
“This lack of engagement is unacceptable, especially at a time when many taxi drivers being forced into poverty, and are even having to abandon their careers after many years in the business.”
Cllr Christopher Bowring, chairman of the Licensing and Appeals Committee at Wokingham Borough Council wrote to Wokingham.Today on Thursday, August 20 to say the committee would consider mitigating action.
He wrote: “The whole regime of licensing fees will be discussed at the next meeting of the Licensing and Appeals Committee in September (30).
“As a matter of course, we will be discussing fees for 2021-22, but we will also be looking back at how fees are currently affecting taxi drivers and others due to the pandemic. We will see if there is any mitigation we can offer.”
Speaking to Wokingham.Today, he said: “We have every sympathy with the plight facing our borough’s taxi drivers. Their income has clearly been greatly reduced by the pandemic, along with many other local businesses.
“We recognise removing the taxi ranks in Broad Street in Wokingham wasn’t helpful for drivers, but we had to follow government guidance to create additional pedestrian space to make it safe for them to return to the town centre.
“Cllr Pauline Jorgensen, our executive member for highways and transport, announced last night at Full Council that the Covid-19 barriers at the northern side of Broad Street will be removed this weekend – restoring the taxi rank.
“This wasn’t as straightforward as it seems because it had to also be agreed with the town council and business representatives.
“But this is welcoming news for the drivers and we’re writing to them to formally let them know.”
He added: “I’m surprised Mr Arshad and Cllr Burgess feel Licensing hasn’t been supporting the drivers. Only last week we had a productive Taxi Liaison Group meeting, which Cllr Burgess attended.
“All drivers were invited to participate, but unfortunately only two were available.
“Nonetheless, we received eloquent testimony from one driver and all his requests and previously received comments will be discussed in public at the Licensing and Appeals Committee next month.”