The Horsefair nightmare: Council failed to consult Wisbech taxi drivers, says Ombudsman

MISLEADING reports, maladministration and the failure to properly consult Wisbech’s taxi drivers marred Fenland District Council’s plan for changes to the Horsefair Bus Station.

That is the provisional finding of Local Government Ombudsman David Richardson, who has investigated how the council approved a �75,000 plan to make changes to the taxi rank.

In a leaked report, Mr Richardson concludes that the Wisbech and District Taxi Drivers’ Association was “unfairly denied the opportunity to comment on the proposals”.

The council’s plan to move the rank across the Horsefair was widely criticised on the grounds that it would force pedestrians to cross a road to reach the taxis.

Cabbies said it was “ill-conceived and unworkable”, Wisbech Town Council said it posed a “significant risk to pedestrians” and former town mayor Councillor Jonathan Farmer branded it “ridiculous”.

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Mr Richardson concludes that the taxi drivers’ association would have objected to the scheme on safety grounds had it been properly consulted.

But he says that this objection would not have been likely to change Cabinet’s decision to approve the plan - as councillors would already have been aware of the impact on taxi users.

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The Ombudsman was called in to investigate the decision following a complaint from Mike Snell, vice chairman of the taxi drivers’ association.

In his report, Mr Richardson says the council broke its own constitution by failing to conduct an “appropriate level of stakeholder consultation about matters to be decided by its Cabinet”.

Mr Richardson recommends that to “remedy the injustice”, the council should apologise to Mr Snell and “make a donation of �200 to an appropriate charity of the association’s choice”.

Work is due to start at the Horsefair this summer.

‘Misleading consultation’

THE Ombudsman’s report says the council invited Councillor Dave Patrick, chairman of the taxi drivers’ association, to a meeting in February last year.

Cllr Patrick was shown plans demonstrating the new arrangements for taxis using the bus station.

He offered no opinion as “he could not commit to a view without consulting members of his association”. There was no further consultation with the association.

In his report, Mr Richardson says: “The report to Cabinet implied that Mr B (Mr Patrick) had been consulted and made no objection to the preferred scheme.

“That was not the case and the taxi drivers association had not otherwise been properly consulted about the new proposals.

“A later report to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee further claimed the association had agreed to the preferred scheme. That too was misleading.”

‘Sick joke’

MEMBERS of the taxi drivers’ association have branded the Ombudsman’s solution to the issue a “sick joke”.

Responding to the provisional finding, Mr Snell said members were furious at the recommendation for the council to apologise and donate �200 to a charity of the association’s choice.

He said: “When our members were informed of this decision they labelled it everything from a ‘sick joke’ to a ‘slap in the face’.”

One member said that when pensioners are knocked down crossing the busy road they will “no doubt be extremely gratified to know that, although they are lying on the ground in a pool of their own blood, at least a worthy charity has received a �200 donation”.

In his reply to the Ombudsman, Mr Snell claims the council should be forced to “postpone the commencement of alteration work pending a proper consultation”.

He concludes: “I, the members of the Wisbech and District Taxi Drivers’ Association, Wisbech Town Council, and all the vulnerable members of the Wisbech public whose lives will be unnecessarily put at risk by the council’s illegal manoeuvring are depending on you to stand up and right this wrong for us.

“Please don’t let our faith in Her Majesty’s Ombudsman prove to be hopelessly misplaced at this critical moment.”

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