Cabbies are calling for tough licensing tests to be relaxed amid a huge drop in the number of taxi drivers in Thanet.
The district council is being urged to overhaul the difficult and "increasingly pointless" local knowledge requirement to help tackle a driver shortage in the area.
A group representing private hire firms says they are now operating with half the number of drivers compared to three years ago, leaving customers struggling to book journeys.
Andy Doody is chairman of the Thanet Private Hire Association (TPHA), which speaks on behalf of the three biggest operators in the district.
The 60 year-old veteran taxi driver says the local knowledge test is far too difficult, and unnecessary in the age of sat-navs.
Under the council's licensing regime, both taxi and private hire drivers have to pass a four-part test, with sections on safeguarding, local knowledge, numeracy and traffic signs.
"Only nine new drivers have been licensed this year. That’s a drop in the ocean. This is why nobody can get taxis..."
The local knowledge section requires prospective drivers to get 18 marks out of 20 to pass.
“It’s pointless, because the systems now do it all for them,” Mr Doody said.
“We’re not saying we want it to be easy, but with respect, I was a driver for 30-odd years. I’m not a silly man, and I failed it twice.
“Last year alone there were 101 fewer licensed vehicles in the area. That’s a terrific amount of drivers to lose in one year, and that was 2021-2022. 2022-23 is going to be even harder.
“Only nine new drivers have been licensed this year. That’s a drop in the ocean. This is why nobody can get taxis."
Mr Doody says the drop in the number of licensed drivers is causing problems for operators.
“You just cannot physically get enough drivers licensed in a timely manner to get them through," he said.
“It’s an absolute headache.”
TPHA raised its concerns with the district council in a letter, telling the authority: "All three of our companies are now running with roughly 50% the number of drivers we had three years ago."
The council's licensing board met on March 21 to discuss changing the tests required to obtain licences, with the aim of getting more people qualified.
A council officer told members that “last year there were quite a lot of drivers that didn’t renew their licence”.
Council documents detailed how in 2022 alone, 101 drivers either closed or did not renew their licences, and 322 have let their licences lapse since 2017.
The council officer went on to say: “I would personally like to see it split a bit more so that there’s a private hire test and a Hackney test, and then obviously the Hackney one can concentrate more on local knowledge or how to get from A to B.”
“Hackney Carriage” is the term used in licensing law for taxi drivers.
Taxi and private hire drivers are subject to slightly different rules under their licences. While taxis are allowed to accept work when hailed or approached, private hire drivers can’t - with every journey needing to be pre-booked with the operator.
Cllr Linda Potts (Ind) told officers and members: “The knowledge test we have is very difficult, not just for foreign drivers but English drivers too. For everyone across the board, I think it is a bit too difficult.”
Cllr Alan Currie (Lab) expressed similar sentiments, saying: “I don’t think the drivers these days need extensive knowledge of the local area, but as you say the Hackney cabs are different.”
“We currently have 391 licensed private hire drivers, and we’ve got seven that are currently going through their renewal process,” she added.
The licensing board instructed council officers to prepare changes to the knowledge test - simplifying the local knowledge needed for private hire drivers - and to report back to the board in the summer.
However, Mr Doody said: “I honestly can’t see that happening by June or July.”
In November last year, Mr Doody and other local taxi operators met with South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay (Con) to discuss their concerns.
Mr Doody backs one of the ideas council officers were told to consider - that of an in-house trainer, hired by the council to teach prospective drivers for the course.
"You just cannot physically get enough drivers licensed in a timely manner to get them through..."
He alleges that, since their November meeting, Mr Mackinlay arranged funding through the DWP to help with implementing in-house training, but the council refused this.
Mr Mackinlay said: “I have regular meetings with the local DWP (JobCentre) who are always on hand to promote candidates towards vacancies.
“They did offer to manage a training scheme to assist those trying to pass the local taxi licensing requirements given the obvious high number of vacancies.
“I am reliably informed by a senior local DWP officer that this offer was made to Thanet Licensing but it was rebuffed.
“This is hugely disappointing.”
A Thanet District Council spokesperson said: “Craig Mackinlay made an informal offer to the council, to approach DWP regarding setting up a course to train taxi drivers.
“Any proposed changes to the process of training taxi drivers must be presented formally to the council’s Licensing Board first of all.
“Additionally, the council was already in the process of identifying ways of delivering these courses in-house, and this has now been approved by the Licensing Board.”