Northern Ireland

Uber to launch taxi service in Belfast

Uber Image copyright PA
Image caption The US-based company is to launch its taxi service in Belfast

The taxi app firm Uber is to launch in Belfast next week.

The US company already operates in more than 300 cities worldwide, including Dublin and London.

It has been granted a taxi operator licence by the Department of the Environment (DOE).

"Uber will be required to fulfil all the normal conditions that apply to this licensing arrangement," a DOE spokesperson said.

Drivers for the firm will have to hold the same taxi licence as drivers at conventional taxi companies.

Uber customers then use an app that pinpoints their location and alerts drivers to a pick-up request.

The business model has proven controversial in several locations. Last year around 12,000 taxi drivers staged a protest in London.

Uber has often been accused of riding roughshod over local rules and regulations when it enters new markets.

In Belfast, it has the necessary operator licence and is recruiting properly licensed drivers.

But there could still be a problem lurking in the legislation.

Northern Ireland's taxi law was overhauled in 2008 with the passing of the Taxis Act.

Political wrangling and rearguard lobbying by parts of the industry mean that it still has not been fully implemented.

On Wednesday of this week the Department of the Environment made six Statutory Rules which will implement parts of the Act.

One part of the legislation is a new requirement for all taxis to fit and use a taximeter and printer.

Currently only Belfast public hire taxis have to do that.

On the face of it that should not be much of a problem for Uber - driver smartphones act as meters.

However, an Assembly question answered by the Environment Minister in November said his department "does not consider that the types of smartphone apps on the market, are taximeters."

This clearly could be a problem for Uber.

The Department said today that the firm will "be required to fully comply with all existing and future legislative requirements that apply across the taxi industry in Northern Ireland, and their operating model must reflect this."

The Statutory Rules are now been laid before the Assembly and will now be subject to scrutiny by MLAs until the end of January.

So it's yet possible the smartphone issue could be challenged or clarified.

Uber said it "will comply with all necessary regulation."

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