The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) concealed key sections of a document which show former Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard went into a pivotal meeting on taxis access to bus lanes briefed to “maintain the current access arrangements” because “bus and bicycle use has to take priority”.
Within days of the 1 February 2017 meeting with Sinn Féin party colleague Paul Maskey MP, the Minister made a screeching U-turn in policy direction, permitting thousands of taxis to access the future Bus Rapid Transit (Glider) bus lanes on a trial basis. This was despite being within the election “purdah” period where major policy decisions are meant to be avoided.
That contentious twelve week trial ended in May 2017 with no conclusive information on impact – influenced no doubt by the baffling development that around 50% of private hire taxis actively avoided using the bus lanes during the trial, according to DfI data.
Yet the Department – without a Minister in place to make such an important decision – is now pressing ahead to expand taxi access into all bus lanes for a full year, couched as an “experiment”, before the launch of the Glider system in September 2018.
Last year an information request was made by Bikefast in relation to the Minister’s crucial meeting with Paul Maskey. The response received on 30 March 2017 included a ‘lines to take’ document, typically prepared by government officials to summarise and bullet-point key issues and the agreed position of the Department and Minister.
Five paragraphs were blanked out in the ‘lines to take’ document given to Bikefast, with an exemption citing regulation 12 (4)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004:
“The disclosure of some of this internal briefing would inhibit the provision of free and frank advice and the quality of that advice in the future. Therefore the Department is of the opinion that the public interest is weighted in favour of non-disclosure of parts of this briefing.”
However, on 18 May 2018 the same ‘lines to take’ document was published on the DfI website without the redactions.
Bikefast can now exclusively reveal the information which had been originally concealed from campaigners:
TAXIS IN BUS LANES
Lines to Take
Our bus lane orders need to be amended to reflect the new classes of taxis which are prescribed in the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015.
The new Regulations became operational in May 2016 and each taxi in the existing taxi fleet will be reclassified as one of the new classes at its annual taxi licence test. Therefore by the end of May 2017 no taxi will be licensed using the old definitions.
Our bus lane orders currently allow two types of taxi to use bus lanes, these are the former Belfast Public Hire taxis and Taxi Bus services. Under the new regulations these equate to Class B and Class D taxis and any taxi licensed as such is also permitted access. Both these types of taxi are permitted as they operate in a similar fashion to public transport, as they can be hired directly on street throughout the week, and can accommodate wheelchair users.
In 2012, and in anticipation of the changes to the taxi licensing regime, the then DRD consulted on a proposal to allow all taxis to use bus lanes which was based on the plans for all taxis to become public hire.
The response was largely against any change, with the main body of responses coming from the cycling lobby concerned about the safety of cyclists should more vehicles be allowed into bus lanes.
However no decision had been taken on future access arrangements, and whether to maintain the current situation or to allow all taxis to use bus lanes.
I recognise this is a contentious issue and valid arguments can be made for both.
I have decided that on balance, and against the background that bus lane performance is improving, to maintain the current access arrangements.
This will mean that Class B and Class D taxis will continue to be allowed into bus lanes, and that Class A and Class C will not.
While I appreciate the arguments for letting other taxis to use bus lanes including better use of road space and freeing up some capacity in the adjacent normal running lane, I think the Department’s overall aim of promoting and assisting more sustainable modes, such bus and bicycle use, has to take priority.
Maintaining the current situation may also encourage some drivers of Class A taxis to decide to start operating a wheelchair accessible Class B taxi.
The underlying premise for the Department’s all-in proposal in 2012 was based on the former Department of the Environment’s desire to introduce a single tier taxi licensing regime, which would have seen all taxis being hireable on street. However this rationale largely disappeared when the assembly voted against the single tier proposal and opted to maintain dual tier within two miles of Belfast City Centre.
This key information shows how sudden and unusual the change in policy direction was – a direction which continues in 2018 as the Department prepares to launch a new, longer, more widespread taxis in bus lanes “experiment”.
Bikefast is deeply concerned that these redactions were deemed to be in the public interest while the 2017 trial was ongoing. In response, the Department said:
“The decision to redact the proposed policy direction given in the ‘lines to take’ was taken on the basis that officials were at the time hopeful that there would be an early resumption of the Assembly and that the policy direction outlined therein could assist any in-coming Minister in making a future decision on the issue. It should be remembered that in March 2017 the 12 week trial initiated by the out-going Minister was underway and that the intention of this trial was to inform a future policy decision.
“The passing of time has meant that the need to withhold the information has diminished and consequently the redacted information has subsequently been released.”
The newly revealed information raises serious questions about exactly what was agreed in the meeting between Chris Hazzard and Paul Maskey. This is more pressing now since the revelation that officials who were due to accompany the Minister were told not to attend the meeting, and that therefore minutes are not available.
And perhaps most concerning was that such a controversial policy area was subject to a 180 degree turn during “purdah”, the pre-election period when Ministers have clear guidance to avoid “initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character.“
While a Minister is perfectly entitled to make decisions to change policy, the Department’s ‘lines to take’ document clearly indicates that not letting all taxis use bus lanes represents “the long term, final position” on the matter.
This isn’t an academic exercise. The issue has returned to the fore with a new taxis in bus lanes “experiment” expected to begin this summer, despite it being in clear contradiction of the ‘lines to take’ policy position.
In January 2018 the roll-out of legislation to permit 12 hour bus lanes on Glider routes, due to begin operation in September 2018, was hijacked by the private taxi lobby and some Belfast city councillors.
A campaign to gather consultation objections ran through January 2018, including a shambolic Belfast City Council committee where an attempt to set the Council’s ‘corporate’ position against 12 hour bus lanes failed.
The intent of the campaign and the objections in the public consultation seemed clear – threaten the £90m Glider launch by demanding private taxi access to bus lanes in exchange for allowing 12 hour bus lanes to proceed.
Bikefast has seen DfI letters asking for objections to be withdrawn, with the key sections summarised here:
“A large number of people have made representations on this issue calling for all taxis to be permitted to use all bus lanes in Belfast. [T]he Department has decided to carry out a further, more extensive trial. The 12 month .. Experimental Scheme can only be progressed following the introduction of the proposed BRT bus lanes legislation [and] should come into operation prior to the commencement of BRT services in September 2018. I hope this has .. helped to allay any concerns you may have had regarding this. If this is the case, I would invite you to withdraw your objection.”
It seemed the Department was left with no choice but to accede, with the option of a judicial review open to taxi lobbyists if large numbers of objections were simply set aside (as they arguably could have been, based on the strong ‘lines to take’ policy position). Another trial seems to have been judged the safest way through the mess DfI allowed to develop.
The Department pre-empted that sorting of consultation objections by announcing a new “Experimental Traffic Control Scheme which would allow Class A taxis into all bus lanes in Belfast” for 12 months, likely to begin before Glider has begun operation. Belfast City councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said of that decision:
“I cannot fathom why any transport planner, in a city like Belfast, would prioritise private transport in this way. How will we ease congestion with this sop? Madness.”
Now that we known the former Minister and the Department made clear in black and white that the “overall aim of promoting and assisting more sustainable modes, such bus and bicycle use, has to take priority” over the desires of the private taxi industry, the questions keep coming.
Something is very wrong here.
The ‘lines to take’ document revealed a position on bus lanes very much in line with sustainable transport campaigners, and the Programme for Government’s extensive prioritisation of sustainable transport and environmental outcomes. Here’s why those points matter:
WHY PROTECTING IMPROVEMENTS IN BUS PERFORMANCE MATTERS
The single most important aspect of this policy surrounds the viability of public transport in one of the most congested cities in the UK.
“I have decided that on balance, and against the background that bus lane performance is improving, to maintain the current access arrangements.”
The £90m Glider system is one of the bigger recent investments in public transport in Belfast. Allowing a fleet of thousands of taxis into bus lanes, where buses will be outnumbered by up to 15 to 1, clashes horribly with the stated aims and vision for Glider.
“The speed, reliability and comfort of the Glider services will provide an attractive alternative to private car use. Glider services will operate between 5:00 am and 12:00 midnight on weekdays. Services will operate at 7-8 minute intervals throughout the working day.”
Taxis will be entitled to stop on bus lanes to pick up or drop off, meaning if traffic is at a standstill, dozens of Glider passengers will have to sit and wait to suit one taxi patron.
WHY SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORT PRIORITY MATTERS
The Minister’s lines made clear that sustainable transport, including taxi buses, Metro, Ulsterbus, the new £90m Glider system and cycling, trumped the needs of the private taxi industry:
“While I appreciate the arguments for letting other taxis to use bus lanes including better use of road space and freeing up some capacity in the adjacent normal running lane, I think the Department’s overall aim of promoting and assisting more sustainable modes, such bus and bicycle use, has to take priority.”
Private taxis are typically saloon cars which circulate around the city with around 50% of their journeys empty of passengers. This is the very definition of unsustainable transport.
Bus lanes are not defined as “sustainable transport lanes” despite this being one of the clear intentions of their operation, alongside safety for vulnerable users such as cyclists and motorcyclists.
This policy actively promotes one of the least sustainable modes of travel, and encourages use of taxis for the promise of quicker journeys at the expense of everyone else. For example, one of the benefits of BRT is sold this way:
“Optimum priority will be given to Glider vehicles at signalised junctions to ensure reliable journey times.”
Thousands of private taxis will get that benefit too, if the experiment goes ahead.
In a city which is the most congested in the UK and Ireland (and the 18th most congested city in the world) and where air pollution levels are ‘among the worst in the UK’, how is it possible for sustainable transport to be pushed below the private taxi industry in the list of priorities?
WHY LEVERAGE ON THE WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE TAXI FLEET MATTERS
The entire taxi fleet in Belfast amounts to around 5,000 vehicles. Of those, around 500 are currently allowed to use bus lanes. (Context is important here; the entire Metro bus fleet is around 300 buses.)
Those 500 are black taxi buses and public hire vehicles which are typically rated to a higher standard for wheelchair accessibility. As these are more costly vehicles (average price £10,604 vs £6,362 for a saloon car, DOE Oct 2013) the fleet size is only around 10% of all taxis in Belfast.
Bus lane access provides an incentive for investing in a higher standard of vehicle, and the Minister’s line picks up on the implications of this point:
“Maintaining the current situation may also encourage some drivers of Class A taxis to decide to start operating a wheelchair accessible Class B taxi.”
Typically a wheelchair user can pre-book a wheelchair accessible private taxi, however they will incur higher rates for the journey than if they booked a saloon car.
Handing over bus lanes to all taxis removes ‘soft’ leverage from the Department to encourage a better balance of wheelchair accessible vehicles. If DfI were to chose in the near future to make bus lane access dependent upon vehicles being fully electric, again that leverage is being frittered away.
WHY PURDAH MATTERS
An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was called on 16 January 2017, with the Assembly itself dissolving 10 days later. Although Chris Hazzard remained in post as Infrastructure Minister right up to midnight on polling day, he was subject to special rules in the pre-election period commonly referred to as “purdah”:
“It is customary for Ministers to exercise discretion during the election period in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy which an incoming Minister and, where appropriate, the Executive might expect an opportunity to consider post election should usually be postponed until then, provided that such postponement would not be either detrimental to the public interest or wasteful of public money. Departments should therefore take this into account in the forward planning of activities and announcements.”
The timing of this sudden U-turn in policy direction meant there was:
- no Executive meetings to agree a common position (not usually necessary for such a small issue, yet the absence means this is a ‘solo run’)
- no Northern Ireland Assembly sitting to allow questions to the Minister on the subject
- no Infrastructure Committee sitting to enable scrutiny of the decision