A NORTH Tyneside taxi firm is blaming council officials for halting its expansion west into Newcastle and forcing it to lay off 90 drivers,
Blue Line Taxis, founded in Wallsend back in 1958, opened a new office in Newcastle in 2010.
However, losing a two-year legal battle over the company’s telephone number has forced it to hand back its licence to the city council and close its Walker office.
The closure follows a court ruling banning the taxi firm from using one number, (0191) 262 6666, for calls from customers in both North Tyneside and Newcastle.
Owner Ian Shanks has now handed back his operator’s licence to the city council and plans to concentrate solely on his firm’s North Tyneside operation.
Mr Shanks said: “I am absolutely devastated that, due to council red tape, I have had to shut down the expanding arm of a flourishing business and, worst of all, tell 90 people they no longer have a job.
“It is absolute madness and unnecessary.
“We have a £500,000 state-of-the-art driver training academy in the pipeline and are currently on a recruitment drive for another 110 drivers, all of which has had to be shelved because the council say we can’t use the phone number we have spent 50 odd years promoting for our Newcastle business.”
Blue Line has spent over £5m investing in booking systems, software and the development of mobile phone apps, and it is angry that some of that investment is now money down the drain.
It claims the 1976 act that governs the issuing of taxi licences is out of date and does not relate to today’s systems.
Ian said: “If someone phones our 262 6666 number, they come through to Wallsend, and we have to despatch a North Tyneside-licensed car. No matter if the call comes from an address within Newcastle City Centre going to Gateshead, we must still send a car from North Tyneside.
“What other industry is expected to work so inefficiently?
“The condition on the operator’s licence refers to where the call is made to, not where the customer is calling from.
“To adhere to the council rules, they want us to start up the business with a new Newcastle phone number after spending years on advertising and all of our customers knowing our number.
“We would be sat there taking no calls, with a fleet of drivers with no work, while turning away jobs on our existing number.”
The addition of the Newcastle fleet came as Blue Line was struggling to cope with demand at its busy Sycamore Street base in Wallsend.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, between 1am and 2am, Blue Line took 1,996 calls, of which their 17 operators managed to answer 1,564, securing 483 bookings.
Ian said: “The fact is that if our customers call our Wallsend office, we have to dispatch a North Tyneside car, regardless of the fact that a Newcastle City Council-licensed car could be sitting 10 yards away.
“That means telling a lone female in the early hours of the morning that she is going to have to wait for a taxi despite the fact that she can see an empty Blue Line car.”
Stephen Savage, Director of Regulatory Services and Public Protection, said: “We’re delighted to have had our judgement upheld in the High Court that taxi firms set up in Newcastle and North Tyneside should have different phone numbers. “Blue Line Taxis continues to be licensed as a private hire operator by Newcastle City Council and we have not revoked their licence or closed their office.
“If the company wishes to continue to operate under the licence it may do so.
“It is simply untrue to say that the council is putting Blue Line drivers out of work and if this is the information that has been given to Blue Line staff then we are very disappointed by that.
“Drivers are self-employed and therefore eligible to work for any Newcastle licensed Private Hire Operator in the city.
“The council has seen correspondence between Blue Line and their drivers suggesting that they are to surrender their operator’s licence at 4pm today - but we have had no direct indication of this from the company.”