(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)
Things are still up in the air with the licensing of Uber, but whatever happens, others will come. Big companies will move in and attempt to take over existing taxi and private hire provision. They will push TfL’s weak licensing regime as far as they can, and will learn from the mistakes of Uber. We need to be ready for them.
The London taxi trade has traditionally comprised of individual driver-operators. Pre-Uber private hire consisted of a much bigger collection of individual drivers dependent on an operator. Many private hire operators were fairly small firms. Addison Lee were the big corporation in the mini-cab world. They pushed the boundaries and gave us grief, but they were nothing compared with Uber.
Whether private hire drivers are employees or self-employed is still a matter for the courts. London taxi drivers are definitely self-employed individuals running our own businesses. Some of us work full-time, others part-time. Many are semi-retired and just work a few hours a week. We have the freedom and flexibility to plan our work using the twenty-four-hour clock. We operate to strict policies, but no-one tells us what to do, unless we run up our licensing authority the wrong way, annoy the police, or fall foul of parking restriction (how times have changed though: having cameras trained on the yellow lines by the iron lung toilet at Regency Place smacks of George Orwell’s 1984).
Taxi and private hire used to be considered quite a mundane world. Some customers used mini-cabs, some used taxis. We largely had our own client bases, with some overlap. It then got political and wrapped up in complicated matters of law. It’s certainly keeping the lawyers busy.
We’ve never harnessed our collective power as much as we should have because we can’t agree on a political viewpoint. Some of us believe in negotiation, others in militant action. Hopefully we can reach more of a consensus in the near future.
Our individuality is both our strength and our weakness. As individuals we have autonomy and flexibility. Businesses don’t like us because investors can’t move in to exploit us. Rapacious corporations can’t make a profit off our backs. This is why there was so much suspicion over having to enter into commercial deals with credit card companies. We were forced to sell out in a way.
Uber and their ilk cannot take over the whole London taxi trade. Only our licensing authority can screw us over, and we have reason to criticise the people who should be protecting us from the illegal activities of dubious corporations. We slogged our guts out on the Knowledge knowing that we had the sole right to ply for hire on the street. That was the deal. That right was enshrined in law. The arrival of powerful foreign corporations disrupted everything. TfL listened to the big people with money and power.
This is the disadvantage of being sole traders. We are fiercely independent, though we are vulnerable. We have the support of organisations such as the LTDA. We have some support in parliament too. What we don’t have is the backing of investors, lobbyists and people in high places to the extent that Uber have. We can’t be invested in. We don’t have government spooks putting pressure on our licensing body.
We are a collection of Individual men and women running our businesses for average pay, at best. As individual driver/operators we know that we wouldn’t get away with what Uber get away with. We wouldn’t be allowed to carry on operating after being labelled as not fit and proper as Uber were when they were denied a new licence. Uber are still operating despite being suspended. And London-licensed drivers are still operating many miles away in other towns. TfL are trying to tighten up on private hire licensing because they know they made a mistake in licensing Uber. It’s likely they’ll have them back, even if they have to work to stricter rules.
I think the only answer is to keep on keeping on: to provide the best service we can as individuals. We should celebrate our status as free-thinking individuals, but also remember we are part of a bigger whole. With a positive mental attitude and by providing an outstanding service we can spread goodwill among the trade and our customers. By being negative and unhelpful, we do the opposite. It’s down to and every one of us to strive for excellence. We’ll never all be in the same trade organisation because of our diversity, but we all need to be in an organisation and stick to the rules. We need to keep our nose clean and a smile on our face.