Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Topical Issue Debate

Rural Transport Services

5:50 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, for coming into the Chamber to discuss this issue.

In December 2013 the then Minister of State with responsibility for public transport, Deputy Alan Kelly, a representative of the predominantly rural constituency of Tipperary North, introduced an innovative and far-sighted scheme to allow rural communities with a dearth of public transport services to secure new hackney licences. Individuals in such areas who might be willing to provide a taxi service could be offered a hackney licence at a reasonable cost through a reasonably straightforward licensing process. Following this announcement, the then Minister of State devolved responsibility for the administration of the scheme to the National Transport Authority, NTA.

It has been my experience in the past year that the good and positive intent of the scheme has somehow been lost in the devolution process. The NTA seems to have erected many obstacles in the way of communities and individuals within them in securing the new rural hackney licences. An important element of the decision-making process for the licences was for the NTA and the applicant to seek the expert opinion of the local authority on whether a rural area was adequately serviced by public transport. So far, I have worked with three individuals in east Galway to secure rural hackney licences for three communities which are badly served by public transport. All three have failed and been told by the NTA that not now or at any point in the future will they be allowed to secure a rural hackney licence because, in the opinion of the authority, their areas are already adequately served by public transport or other taxi or hackney services.

If one puts in place a process to seek the expert opinion of a local authority and then ignores it, what is the NTA’s intention? Does it intend to fully support the provision of rural hackney licences? Does it intend to keep to the spirit of the scheme when first introduced by the then Minister of State? My experience to date is that this is not the case and that the NTA is not at all supportive of communities or individuals who wish to seek to establish new rural hackney services.

Will the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, and his colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, make it clear to the NTA that it is not administering the scheme in the way originally intended? Many communities across rural east Galway, as well as in other rural areas, are badly in need of such services, but they are not being allowed to avail of them.

The regulation of the small public service vehicles, SPSV, sector is a matter for the National Transport Authority, NTA, pursuant to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. This includes responsibility for the rural hackney licence. As such, I have no function in this matter. I can, however, set out some background and some information on the operation of the scheme, which has been provided to me by the NTA.

The recommendation for the provision of a local area hackney licence category arose from the taxi regulation review report published by the Government in 2012. The background to the recommendation was the recognition that in many rural areas there is a low level of access to a taxi or hackney service, with many areas having no access at all to these services. The report also stated that the reason for the poor level of access to taxis and hackneys in these rural areas almost certainly relates to the economics of providing a taxi or hackney service in these areas. Given the level of taxis available nationally, it is likely to be the case that if the service was commercially viable, it would be provided by the market at present. However, the limited nature of transport hiring activity in these areas means that sufficient volume of business to justify the placement of conventional hackney and taxi services does not exist in many locations.

Provision for the granting of rural hackney licences was originally adopted in the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 (Local Area Hackney) Regulations 2013. The provision has since been restated in the Taxi Regulation (Small Public Service Vehicles) Regulation 2015. Both of these regulations were made by the NTA. The regulations reflect the recommendations of the taxi regulation review board, which anticipated the following features: First, the area of operation is limited. The focus of local area hackney licensing is intended to serve a local community. While the size of the operation area will vary from place to place, it would be expected that many areas would be represented by a five to seven kilometer radius from a defined central point such as a village. Second, the need for a local area hackney licence must be validated by a local community or business organisation. The applicant has to provide the following: Confirmation of a need from an established organisation representing local businesses or from a community group with charitable tax status; a need analysis study carried out by or on behalf of the relevant local authority; a letter confirming this signed by the manager or director of service of the local authority. Third, drivers must be resident in the local area.

The requirement to sit the skills development programme in respect of area and industry knowledge which applies for the general SPSV driver licence is waived. Licence fees are also low and the vehicle standards are less than those required for general SPSV licences. Like all hackneys, the driver is not permitted to trade on public roads or at a taxi rank, however, the establishment of an approved hackney stand in an off-street area is permissible, where the hackney vehicle can accept customers. It should be noted that the licensing of a local area hackney service is intended to address transport defects that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas. It is not intended to replace or displace conventional taxi or hackney services. Under the current legislation, the NTA is permitted to grant a licence if it is satisfied that the public transport needs of the area can only be met through the granting of a local area licence.

I am advised by the NTA that to date, 42 applications for rural hackney licences have been received. Two of these applications have lapsed. Of the remaining 40, seven have been granted, a further seven have been offered on a conditional basis or approved in principle, 17 have been refused and nine are pending. The rural hackney licence is still at an early stage of roll out. The NTA is satisfied that it is a necessary scheme to tackle transport defects in rural areas where the most general SPSV services are not being provided. The NTA has assured me that the regulatory arrangements that have been implemented are fully in accordance with the recommendations of the taxi regulation review group report approved by Government.

6:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I can only speak from my experience of working with three distinct communities and three individuals wishing to serve those communities. They satisfied all of these criteria. Their application was accompanied by a letter from a community group that advocates on behalf of the community and works to address the needs of the rural community. They were also accompanied by a forensic analysis of the public transport needs carried out by the local authority and signed by a very senior figure within the local authority management. The individual concerned also had a suitable vehicle and made a very significant commitment not to operate outside a distinct radius of, as the Minister of State pointed out, five to seven kilometers. They also committed not to undermine to any extent existing hackney services in adjoining towns or villages. They satisfied all of those criteria, yet were refused. I can only speak from the experience of working with these individuals. They were exceptionally disappointed. The communities they were willing to serve were equally disappointed.

When this rural hackney opportunity was first proposed back in December 2013, it was welcomed by a number of groups advocating on behalf of rural Ireland - Irish Rural Link, the Irish Farmers Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland all welcomed the opportunity at long last to be able to serve the needs of rural communities that were badly served by public transport. It has been my experience that the spirit and intent of the regulations and legislation, and of the review of taxi services nationally that produced this recommendation, have not been honoured by the NTA. It seems to be an exceptionally difficult entity to deal with in terms of securing these rural hackney licences. I urge the Minister of State to engage directly with it and to question it on whether it is implementing the scheme as it was intended. It is my experience that the opposite is happening.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is an important issue. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, when he brought in this scheme he did so to deal with the defects. The Deputy is correct in that there are many rural areas that do not have a taxi service. If it was commercially viable people would provide the service. There has to be a balance. I am going to ask my officials and will also myself engage with the NTA. I will also ask that the points raised by the Deputy be brought to the attention of the NTA. There have been 42 applications yet only seven licenses been offered. The scheme is at an early stage and there are teething problems, nevertheless I will ask the NTA to have a look at it again. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I will also negotiate to see if we can try and support and make sure that the areas that need licenses get them.

What we do not want - the Deputy can understand this - is to displace people who are there. It is difficult enough for taxi people, particularly in rural Ireland. They are finding it hard enough to make a living. There are many people finding it difficult to make a living. What we need is balance. I will ask the NTA to look at this again and to take the Deputy's concerns into account. I will send on this report from the Dáil today to the NTA and will ask it to have a look at this again. The scheme was intended to serve areas that were not getting the required service. What we do not want is an over-regulation of the scheme, but we also do not want to make it easy and put other people out of business. There has to be a balance and we are trying to strike the balance. It is important that this scheme be looked at again and I will ask them to do that.