The bitter dispute between tuk-tuks and taxis is set to intensify after it emerged the three-wheelers are to operate as a dial-and-ride service.

Europe's first fleet of motorised rickshaws has run on a bus network with set stops until now but the firm behind the tuk-tuks has now been granted a license allowing passengers to be picked up and dropped off anywhere in the city.

The change means the vehicles will pose a direct threat to the business of cab firms operating across Brighton and Hove.

Taxi drivers who have vigorously fought the quirky mode of transport all the way to a tribunal yesterday reacted angrily to the news.

And city council leader Simon Burgess added weight to the dissenting voices by questioning the safety of the three-wheelers as a de facto taxi service.

Councillor Burgess said: "I will campaign to get the regulations changed if they are going to run a service like this."

Taxi driver of the year Damian Norman said: "Once this becomes public knowledge that they are coming back with this service people will be getting even more irate about it."

GMB member Mick Doyle, a Brighton taxi driver, added: "We are worried about safety and that the tuk-tuks are going through the back door to get a taxi service."

TucTuc Ltd has been granted a flexible bus licence to run Tuc Freedom Ride from May 23 which allows the rickshaws to carry passengers who have booked in advance.

Firm director Dominic Ponniah has refused to reveal plans for the new service.

But The Argus has obtained details of the outfit from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency which show that the service is licensed for 24 hours a day Monday to Saturday, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The flexible licence means the tuk-tuks could pick people up from established stops once they have booked and drop them home, or vice-versa, or run a completely flexible service collecting and driving passengers to and from anywhere within the city.

The service could run up to six of its new six-seater rickshaws and eight of its original tuk-tuks.

Payment is made at a fix rate, like a bus, so a vehicle which collects three people travelling to the same destination and charges them £4 each cannot charge two people £6 each.

All seats must also be available to the public so a policy of "no sharing" is not allowed.

The tuk-tuks cannot be hailed on the street but it is possible for bookings to be made after it has left the depot.

TucTuc Ltd's original bus service was met by strong opposition from taxi firms which complained the rickshaws were flouting the terms of their licence and were unsafe.

The campaign led to a tribunal which found the three-wheelers had been missing their timetable and fined the firm £16,000. This was reduced to £8,000 on appeal.

But the latest revelation is sure to raise the dispute to a new level and Terry Flanagan, secretary of the professional drivers branch with GMB, vowed to use the union's legal team to fight the plans.

He said: "We think it is wrong that in civilised society this type of vehicle should be allowed to carry passengers.

"We could look to launch a campaign to advise people not to get into one of these death traps."

He added he was concerned that drivers may not be fully vetted like taxi drivers.

Coun Burgess said the tuk-tuks were a great addition to the city but added he had raised concerns about the licence with the Government.

He said: "I do not understand how the tuk-tuks can have a service when there is very little difference with taxis.

"They are a great addition to the seafront offer and I think they have been good for the city.

"But I do not like the idea of drunk people getting into a tuk-tuk at night and falling out or causing the driver problems.

"We have a high-quality taxi service in the city and I do not think tuk-tuks should be able to compete with them without meeting their standards."

TucTuc Ltd director Dominic Ponniah said he would be releasing full details of the service in early May, when the three-wheelers return after a five-month break.

He said: "TucTuc Ltd can today confirm they have applied to the South-Eastern and Metropolitan Traffic Commissioner to register their new Brighton service.

"The application has been approved and the new service will commence on 23 May 2007."

What do you think? Is the decision to let tuk-tuks operate like taxis a good idea? Let us know below.