National Licensing Bureau

(Original edit of article published in Taxi magazine)

I didn’t write about cross border hiring too long ago, but things are getting worse.  The menace is spreading.  With the borders down, Transport for London has unwittingly become a national licensing centre for private hire, supplying mini-cabs to the whole of the country.  Hundreds of lucky drivers gain their TfL licences each week, and it’s a licence to print money in the town of their choice.

Since de-regulation, word has got around the taxi and private hire world that drivers are free to work wherever they like.  It’s now a total free-for-all.  The Berlin Wall has been breached, and it’s liberation day.  All you have to do is identify the licensing authority with the slackest regime and apply there.  Aspiring taxi drivers might live in an area with a stringent licensing process, and possibly a Knowledge test.  No problem, just get licensed in another borough.  Thereafter simply work where you feel like.

Earlier in the year I spoke about how Knowsley Council suspended licensing for a few weeks at the end of 2016 as it couldn’t cope with the flood of applications.  Knowsley Council had stopped testing taxi drivers’ Knowledge, and it was clear that many drivers were applying for Knowsley licences with the intention of working in Liverpool or Manchester where the regime was tighter.

More recently it was found that 177 private hire drivers residing in Sheffield were licensed in a city hundreds of miles away.  Guess where?  Yes, London.  Over the last six months there has been a 330% rise in TfL private hire licences for drivers with a Sheffield address.

In addition to the London licensed drivers, there are 400 PH drivers with Sheffield addresses licensed by Rossendale, near Blackburn.  Drivers are coming into Sheffield from many other places, including Wales.  Here’s what Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh said: “Sheffield Council prides itself on its strict licensing and rigorous training conditions which help keep taxi and PH users in our city safe.  But the change in the law is riding roughshod over these protections meaning drivers from across the country can get a licence from areas with different standards and requirements and still operate in Sheffield”.

Sheffield Council have done everything right.  They’ve have tried to run a tight ship, only to have it overrun by pirates from foreign lands.  Their reward is to be flooded by drivers who’ve gained licences where the regulations are lax and there are no restrictions in numbers, notably London.  The situation is grim for genuine Sheffield drivers, and for the cab-riding public who might reasonably expect to be driven around by a local expert accountable to the local licensing authority.  Not so.  Safety and standards are out of the window:  Sheffield Council have limited enforcement powers because their drivers are licensed elsewhere!

You might not think this affects us, but Sheffield drivers licensed in London can work in London too of course.  When Sheffield is full, they can come back to London.

It amazes me how someone can drive around a strange town with confidence.  I’ve lived in the small town of Leighton Buzzard for over two years, but I’ve little idea of what goes on past the train station.  If I had to drive a cab here I would have no idea.  You don’t soak up the geography of a town just by living there, not for cab driving purposes anyway.  The area needs to be studied and experienced.  You need to learn every main road, every suburb, and every main route in and out of town to have any idea.  We all know that.

I find sat navs next to useless in big cities.  I’ve driven in Sheffield a few times and have found it challenging to say the least.  The sat nav was sending me down streets that were permanently blocked off and around and around one-way systems and ring roads until I got dizzy.  A few years’ ago I took a taxi from a Sheffield city centre rank to a restaurant in Kelham Island, barely a mile away.   Another driver had to explain it to my man before he attempted the journey.  Maybe he was really a mini-cab driver from London?

TfL either can’t, or won’t restrict, PH licences.  Sorry, but it seems absurd to me that they can totally transform London’s road system, yet complain that they need an Act of Parliament to restrict mini-cab numbers.  I can’t imagine many MPs voting for the traffic mayhem around Westminster.

London is seen as a soft touch and has become the go-to authority for a quickie licence.  In desperation TfL have put up hurdles to try and stem the tide: things that the public should expect as standard; such as proper insurance, topographical testing, and a good standard of English.  Whether or not licensing will slow down with the English language tests, who knows?  When they’re all speaking like Nigel Havers we could all be in trouble.

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