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Friday, December 1, 2023

Newcastle’s black and white taxis approved despite drivers’ fear over abuse from Sunderland fans

Contentious plans to rebrand Newcastle’s taxis in black and white have been approved.

Hundreds of taxi drivers in the city will be required to deck out their vehicles in the colours of Newcastle United, in an effort to crack down on criminals preying on vulnerable women by posing as cabbies.

Under a new policy finally signed off by Newcastle City Council on Wednesday night after months of debate, all hackney carriages in the city will have to be black with a white bonnet.

Local authority bosses have argued that the change is a much-needed safety measure to give officially licensed taxis a clear and distinctive look, amid major concerns about vulnerable people on nights out being picked up by dangerous individuals and subjected to sexual assault.

But the idea has sparked a backlash from drivers, who have branded it a waste of public money and a potential risk to their own safety.

Zulfi Youssaf, a taxi driver in Newcastle since 1988, told councillors on Wednesday night that he feared adopting NUFC’s colours would make rival football fans from Sunderland or visiting teams travelling to St James’ Park believe that cabbies support or are sponsored by the Magpies.

He added: “As a cab driver I go to Sunderland every day. I will get racial abuse and my vehicle will be damaged by away supporters because of the black and white bonnets.”

Cllr Paula Maines. Image: Newcastle City Council

Labour councillor Paula Maines replied that hackney carriages already carry Newcastle markings and that the white bonnets, which have been supported by the city’s street pastors, would present “no greater risk than currently of hate crime towards drivers and their vehicles”.

Cllr Maines, the council’s cabinet member responsible for taxi licensing, said: “At the commencement of drafting this policy the council and licensing authority were aware of acute public safety issues that  needed to be addressed – with a young, lone, vulnerable woman subject to assault having been picked up in a private car falsely operating as a taxi. Unfortunately, that degree of vulnerability, public risk, and concern remains and Northumbria Police colleagues have had cause to investigate a series of sexual and other assault allegations relating to unlicensed vehicles picking up lone, vulnerable females in the night time economy.”

A council report detailed how police made 80 interventions during an eight-week operation investigating unlicensed vehicles targeting vulnerable people in the city centre over recent months, safeguarding 34 potential victims as a result.

Lib Dem opposition leader Colin Ferguson said it was “undeniable” that public safety concerns need to be tackled, but accused the council of not listening to taxi drivers’ objections – with the policy coming back unchanged despite being put on hold for further talks over the summer.

The Lib Dems called for a major public information campaign to make sure the public are aware of the new taxi design and asked for a further delay of at least three months to make sure the new conditions “strike the right balance between drivers’ freedom to operate, customers’ safety and convenience, and competition in the market”.

Cllr Deborah Burns warned that, without an effective publicity drive, the new policy  will be “utterly ineffectual and could lead to even greater confusion” – saying the sight of a white bonnet would lead her to presume a vehicle was not a hackney carriage.

Cllr Maines promised that there would be publicity specifically targeted at colleges, universities, and city centre workplaces to make them aware of the taxis’ new look, while fellow Labour cabinet member Alex Hay called it a “significant step towards enhancing public safety and combatting the dangers posed by unlicensed and potentially dangerous individuals”.

The council is planning to give a £100 grant to each of the 597 licensed hackney carriage drivers in Newcastle to help with the cost of fitting a white vinyl wrapping around their bonnet, but drivers have also complained that they will have to fork out themselves if the wraps become dirty or damaged.

Cllr Maines said the council cannot afford to give any financial aid to replace damaged wraps, but expects them to be “durable”.

The black and white branding will only be required on hackney carriages, like those that rank outside Central Station and are licensed to ply for hire, and not for private hire companies that can only pick up pre-arranged bookings.

They will also need to display red council crests on the front doors and have a taxi sign on the roof that is white at the front and red at the rear.

Private hire vehicles will have to be adorned with a green council plate and display the operator’s details on the back passenger doors.

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