SOUTHAMPTON taxi drivers fear being driven out of business by an incoming scheme to tackle the city’s illegally high pollution levels.

That’s despite civic chiefs offering cabbies in Southampton and Eastleigh a £250,000 pot to help them ‘go-green’, before the introduction of a Clean Air Zone.

Due to be introduced by 2019, the scheme will force commercial vehicle drivers in high polluting vehicles to cough up sky-high fees to enter the city.

Environmental chiefs hope the move will drive down the lethal levels of dangerous gasses in Southampton – said to be one of the worst polluted cities in the UK.

In a bid to help cabbies, civic chiefs are offering grants to offset the cost of new eco-friendly vehicles, which will be immune from the charges.

But cab bosses say the grants, which range from £1,500 to £3,000, will only put a small dent in the price of an environmentally-friendly cab – which can cost up to £50,000.

Southampton-based taxi driver, Alan Lloyd, accused the council of “pricing taxis out of the city”.

He also described the money offered by the city council as “token”.

Another to comment was Perry McMillan, chairman of the south east cab section of Unite.

He said: “At the end of the day, cabbies can’t afford that sort of money.

“You’ve got to remember that a lot of these drivers are small businesses and some of those small businesses could go and get out of the market because of this.”

Despite having a hybrid himself, Mr McMillan, a taxi driver of more than two decades, said he was sceptical about how many cabbies would take up the offer.

He added: “I’ve spoken to taxi drivers and I think a lot of them are just looking at ways they can get round it. Whether that be just paying the charge or getting a vehicle which just passes the standard.”

The comments come following a meeting between civic chiefs and taxi bosses yesterday, where the new grant scheme was announced.

Officers from Southampton City Council say the money, which was gained from a central government grant, will be given to cabbies who purchase low emission vehicles.

The biggest grant of £3,000 will be given to those who choose an electric car, while smaller grants are available for hybrids and low-emission fuel-powered cars.

To be eligible, taxi drivers will need to have been licensed by the council for a year and have driven more than 8,000 miles over that period.

Drivers will also have to register their taxi for three years with the city council, who also license cabs in Eastleigh.

Announcing the scheme, which begins as of next Monday, councillor Chris Hammond, cabinet member for sustainable living, said: “Taxi drivers are one of the first groups that the city council and Eastleigh Borough Council has offered financial support for the Clean Air Zone.

“This Labour council has made pollution one of our priorities and it was an important part of our manifesto.

“We are doing what we can to make sure we have that dialogue and we give that support to help taxi drivers come on us with this journey.”

The scheme comes following a month-long consultation earlier this year, in which civic chiefs asked taxi drivers how they could best support them in light of the Clean Air Zone.

According to the council, 59 per cent of respondents claimed they would choose a hybrid car if they were to ‘go-green’.

The council said that most taxi drivers had also shown a preference towards a cash incentive scheme.

Southampton is one of five cities around the UK tasked with introducing a Clean Air Zone.

The others are Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham and Derby.

The scheme was launched after the UK was given a final warning by the European Union for continually breaching legal levels of pollutant gasses, including toxic nitrogen dioxide – produced by road traffic.

Health experts say the high level of pollutants lead to thousands of premature deaths each year, of which 110 occur in Southampton.