Queenstown taxi companies revolt against $500-a-pop rank permits

Queenstown’s three major taxi companies are parking Queenstown council’s $500-a-pop rank permits, and will likely take their issues to the Ombudsman.

It means, from next month, Queenstown Taxis, Corporate Cabs and Green Cabs will no longer operate from Queenstown CBD ranks, but instead be available for hire through their call centres.

The decision comes after an apparent break-down in communication between Queenstown’s council and the cab companies over long-running issues with the permit system, introduced in 2019 after the industry was deregulated two years earlier.

Of the 150 permits issued, 88 are held by those three companies as of this week, but none of them are being renewed.

Corporate’s boss Cameron Allison says over the past 12 months there’s been a lot of positive discussion with council about the permit system, and whether or not there’s ‘‘scope for change’’.

‘‘There was definitely acknowledgement that change needed to occur,’’ Allison tells Mountain Scene.

Corporate Cabs’ national legal and compliance manager James Hart says those discussions have focused on consumer protection issues, for example the failure of independent cabbies to negotiate fares in advance, which is a legal requirement when they’re not using a meter, and general safety issues.

Allison and Queenstown Taxis managing director Grant Scannell, who also heads up the New Zealand Small Passenger Service Vehicle Association, of which Hart is vice-president, understood there’d be a meeting between them and council’s strategy and asset planning manager Mark Baker before permits went out for renewal.

Instead, they were astounded to receive an email from Baker on June 28 telling them — and all their drivers — they had 48 hours to renew.

Further, the price was increasing to $500, up from $100, in play since late 2021 due to the impacts of Covid and the disruption of infrastructure work.

Drivers, companies, used as ‘cash-cow’

All three question where the value is in the permit, considering they’ve allegedly lost 50% of the taxi ranks over the past few years and there’s been no proper enforcement of the permits — or where other independent cabbies are parking up — by anyone.

‘‘I guess it would be everybody’s assumption who’s paying that fee that it’s going on either infrastructure to support taxi ranks, or enforcement.’’

Hart says there’s a ‘‘bit of disappointment on our side’’ at the way the situation’s been handled.

‘‘If we’ve got independents sitting around everywhere … that significantly undermines the value of those permits, and creates an unlevel playing field for our operators that do abide by the rules.’’

He believes there’s a procedural issue around fairness in giving permit-holders 48 hours’ notice to renew their permits, but there’s a substantive issue around the value of the permit, when issues haven’t been resolved.

‘‘Treasury, in 2017, released guidelines for setting of fees in the public sector.

‘‘We don’t believe that the $500 per vehicle is an accurate reflection of cost-recovery and doesn’t meet Treasury’s 2017 guidelines.’’

Scannell, who initially pushed for the permits, says it appears as though taxi drivers have become ‘‘a cash-cow’’ for council.

“It’s fallen apart”: Queenstown Taxis managing director Grant Scennell’s refusing to renew his company’s 56 taxi rank permits, which would have cost $28,000

There are now just 10 taxi parks in the CBD, eight on Camp St and two on Shotover St, meaning competition for those spots from the 150 permit-holders is intense.

Further, loading zones used to convert to taxi stands after 6pm, but Scannell claims many have been changed ‘‘without our knowledge’’ — ‘‘it’s just completely out of control’’.

Scannell says the Queenstown system was being used as a pilot and, if successful, it would have been promoted throughout the country.

‘‘It could have worked, but it’s fallen apart,’’ he says.

Allison says they’ll ‘‘probably’’ take the matter to the Ombudsman.

‘‘I also think it’s in the interests of the public … for us to try to do the right thing within the area.’’

Council responds to permit concerns

Queenstown council’s about to start developing two new documents, which will ‘‘heavily influence’’ the location and number of taxi ranks in the district.

Council comms and marketing advisor Daniel O’Keeffe says they’ve been listening to taxi operators who’ve suggested modifying the current framework, under which the permits are issued, and moving various ranks.

‘‘They have some good ideas on the framework and is something we’re considering.’’

Regarding ranks, the Parking Strategy and subsequent ‘Comprehensive Parking Management Plans’ would deal with the taxi ranks.

‘‘All taxi operators will receive an invitation to participate in this process and inform our decisions moving forward.’’

On allegations the 48 hours permit-holders were given to renew was an ‘‘unreasonable timeframe’’, O’Keeffe says this year’s permit renewal was affected by ‘‘technical and resourcing issues’’.

Council accepts that resulted in ‘‘a quite tight timeframe’’, so there’ll be a grace period for current permit holders to ensure they’re not infringed while waiting on the 2023-24 permits.

‘‘We can’t favour one company over another and are pushing on with the renewals process in an equitable way.

O’Keeffe says the existing permit framework was approved by resolution of full council in April, 2019, which included capping the permit numbers at 150 at a price of $500 per permit.

The price was reduced in October, 2020, to $100 due to the effects of Covid and a reduction in overall passengers.

That reduction was retained for the past financial year due to Covid’s on-going effects, and street upgrade work impacting passenger numbers.

‘‘This year, we are reverting back to the adopted price of $500 per year as laid out in the April, 2019, council resolution.’’

Mountain Scene asked what the $75,000 collected by council through the permits, at full rate, was being spent on.

Council was unable to provide an answer by deadline.

Rank behaviour

Some independent cabbies are cheekily parking on newly tiled Lower Beach St, by Earnslaw Park, however the area’s days as a de facto taxi rank appear to be numbered.

Queenstown Taxis’ managing director Grant Scannell says no one’s allowed to park there — ‘‘it’s a shared space’’.

‘‘My guys feel like they’re being ripped off because I’ve told them not to park down there, so why should these [cabbies] just do whatever they want?’’

Scannell was this week advised CCTV cameras ‘‘will be installed in that area very soon to help mitigate the issue’’.

While delighted about this, he adds: “You’d think the cameras would be up there already.”

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