TaxiPoint’s Editor Steve Kenton met with Wes Streeting MP on 13 May at the Parliamentary Chambers to find out his views on some of the current opportunities and challenges facing the taxi trade.
With questions from our readers, we found out what Wes thinks about everything from cross border hiring to our regulators, technology, and more.
TAXIPOINT: Is there going to be any movement soon in combating cross border hiring, which seems to be affecting both the taxi industry and private hire industry in a pretty negative way across the country? STREETING: Cross border hiring is one of the biggest issues that we have taken up through the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which I set up soon after being elected. Both our report as an APPG and the working group that was commissioned by the Department of Transport to look into the future of Taxi and private hire licensing, both recognise that cross border hiring is a big issue. What is effectively happening is a system where drivers and operators are getting their licences awarded in one authority, but then working in another authority and sometimes not even in the original licencing authority at all. They are only really doing that for one of two reasons: either they have found it cheaper to get the licenses somewhere else, so it’s a cost issue; and/or they have decided that the licensing requirements in certain areas are too stringent and they are trying to work their way around it. This can’t go on, and at the moment we are having a battle with Government. Government says they are going to introduce a national minimum standard which they think will correct the problem. But it’s our view, and this is a view that is shared across parties as well, that we need to have a system where a journey can begin or end within the licensing authority. So what you can’t do is go and drive around somewhere else. For me, this is about transparency and consistency, but also congestion as well. One of the issues we’ve got is that there has been an explosion in the number of private hire vehicles, and if drivers can just operate anywhere they like regardless of where they were licensed, I don’t think that is a system that benefits anyone. So, we will be pushing for an end to cross border hiring hopefully when the Government brings in a transport bill. I really do understand the frustration of taxi drivers because this is urgent, this is overdue. I don’t understand why we are still delaying, and l am pushing for Government to act, because I think to be honest taxi drivers have had enough of waiting and they can see the unfairness in the system. Who is checking that Uber are compliant with the current legislation pertaining to their licensing, given that they were granted a probationary license? Well that is the job of Transport for London (TfL). I actually met with Uber recently in San Francisco with a group of cross-party MPs, and we were looking at the future of technology and the impact on the economy and society. They’ve clearly got big ambitions around the future of transportation, and I think they acknowledge that they have made some grand mistakes. What I am yet to be convinced about is that they have fundamentally changed, and that they understand the impact of their approach on the whole of the London transport industry. I still have a big health warning attached to Uber and I haven’t seen enough evidence of change to convince me that they should be operating. What are your thoughts on how taxis and private hire were covered in the London Mayor’s Transport Strategy? I saw the level of upset that the exclusion of taxis and private hire vehicles from the transport strategy caused, and I thought that was a real shame because, actually on a number of levels, Sadiq Khan has done more for the taxi industry than his predecessors when it comes to things like: congestion charging policy; the grants that he has put in place to help drivers move on to zero emission capable taxis; putting in place taxi ranks at stations in outer London to support the night tube; and calling for, although he doesn’t have the power to do it, a cap on the number of private hire vehicles. I think it probably tells us about the mayor’s views on these issues. I think he has been pretty clear by his actions, and this tells us more about how TfL view the taxi and private hire industries. I think it is pretty short sighted on the mayor’s part to omit taxis from the strategy, as I think when we are planning transportation for a city as big and as complicated as London, you have to have taxis and private hire vehicles in the mix. I think more than anything else, it has added insult to injury to a whole lot of taxi drivers who already feel like TfL hasn’t understood their concerns and that it hasn’t been on their side. I am also increasingly coming up against concerns from taxi drivers about decisions that are made by local authorities. I don’t think that councils are fully understanding the benefits that taxis bring, and I am concerned about the way in which taxis are being excluded as if they were other motor vehicles on the streets of London. As councils increasingly focus on improvements for the cycling and pedestrian communities, what do you think about cycle schemes and the increasing accidents which come from increased cycle use? On cyclists, I just want London to be a city where cyclists can travel around safely. I do think we have had some real hair-brained schemes in the past. The Embankment strikes me as the worst, and actually there are better technological solutions. I notice down the Embankment that during rush hour you do get quite a few cyclists down there going to work, so at that time of the day, having the bollards up on the cycle lanes, that works. But I have been down the Embankment at weekends, actually throughout most of the day, you barely see a cyclist, and when you do, they are largely tourists. There is no reason why we couldn’t design smarter schemes, bollards can come up at peak cycling times and go down for the rest of the day. I think we need a more integrated approach to running London Transport, because I think London can work for everyone and can work for every mode of transport, but at the moment this situation isn’t working well for anyone. I do think cyclists put themselves at risk unless they are proficient cyclists, and I think we do have to reconsider this whole issue about what basis a cyclist is cycling alongside motor vehicles and whether there should be a system of insurance in place to protect cyclists and other drivers and pedestrians. I think they are big and important questions and ones the Government should look at. Who is checking that Uber are compliant with the current legislation pertaining to their licensing, given that they were granted a probationary license? Well that is the job of TfL. I actually met with Uber recently in San Francisco with a group of cross-party MPs, and we were looking at the future of technology and the impact on the economy and society. They’ve clearly got big ambitions around the future of transportation, and I think they acknowledge that they have made some grand mistakes. What I am yet to be convinced about is that they have fundamentally changed, and that they understand the impact of their approach on the whole of the London transport industry. I still have a big health warning attached to Uber and I haven’t seen enough evidence of change to convince me that they should be operating. Do you think that any other ride-hailing company wishing to operate within the UK will now have more stringent prerequisites to adhere to? Yes I hope so, and that is why we need a taxi and private hire bill as soon as possible so we can have a fresh look at all of the taxi and private hire legislation and bring it up to date with the 21st century for an industry that is so different to the one that was in place when the last bill was put in. At the moment (time of interview), the current age limit for a diesel vehicle is 15 years (with an LPG conversion it extends to 20 years) and TfL are looking to reduce that figure to 12 years. With the new electric taxi being zero emission capable, do you think the age limit on it should be removed? I support TfL’s overall objective of getting polluting vehicles off the streets of London, and I think taxi drivers do as well, but the message I am getting from taxi drivers is they would love to have ZEC taxis but the cost is still too high, especially at a time when taxi drivers ask questions about their livelihoods and about how sustainable the taxi industry is. I think TfL has either got to be a bit more flexible about the age limit, or they have got to introduce more generous grants than the ones they already have and help people make that transition over to a ZEC taxi. At the moment the complaint I hear, and it is a pretty fair one actually, is when you take on a taxi you take it on knowing what the rules are and you make a whole lot of cost benefit calculations on that basis, and I am concerned that there are a lot of people out there who have bought taxis and with the age limit in mind and now the goal posts have been shifted, it makes their livelihoods harder.
What is happening with the development of infrastructure for charging electric taxis? I think this is something that is on the mayor’s radar, he wants to improve environmentally sustainable transport in London and he wants to improve air quality. I think we need to go a lot further faster, and not just in London but right across the UK. The vehicles are there, the technology is there but the infrastructure is playing catch up. Do you think it is an acceptable policy for TfL to insist on dictating which credit card systems taxi drivers use? This is a totally indefensible position by TfL. It is perfectly reasonable for TfL to ask taxi drivers to take card payments as part of the terms of operation, I’ve got no problem with that. But to impose a system and to impose a charging structure, I think it is mind-numbingly stupid. I think taxi drivers ought to have the freedom to choose their own providers, and it’s so easy these days. I don’t believe in monopoly providers like that because you guys are effectively a captive audience and the choice of payment systems seems to me to be one that belongs to taxi drivers. Do you think TfL are fit for purpose in relation to regulating the licensed taxi industry and the private hire industry, or should it be devolved back to the metropolitan police where it was previously? That’s a good question. TfL are getting better, I would not pretend they are currently perfect. I think there have been some conflicts of interest at points where TfL are making decisions, but they are not entirely impartial. I think sometimes TfL's role as a transport provider can come into conflict in terms of TfL's role as a transport regulator. I think in particular, under Sadiq Khan we have had a very different direction. TfL now want the power to cap the number of private hire vehicles because the mayor wants to do it. I think prior to Sadiq Khan being there, TfL saw private hire licences as a nice litter earner, and they haven’t really thought properly about having the number of enforcement officers on the streets to enforce, which is something that Sadiq Khan has tried to put right. I am not entirely convinced it should be devolved back to the Met; I think there is an interesting case particularly around the safety angle. I am not convinced given the state of the Police funding at the moment that the Police would be better, that would be my concern.
As technology advances and driverless cars are evolving, can you tell us more about what you think the impact will be for taxis? In my view, driverless car technology is here, it is developing quite quickly. I don’t think driverless technology means we are going to do away with drivers any time soon, I think there is a whole other challenge beyond the technology which is about culture, how many of us would want to be in a car with no driver I think is a big question. I have always been convinced that the taxi and private hire industry in London is going to change enormously over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, but I think that in 30 year’s time the iconic black taxi will still exist and it will be driven by a human being. I believe that taxis are providing a quality of service and a recognised brand of service, and frankly a tourist attraction and an iconic service, that will mean people will still want to be in a licensed black taxi in the future.
Wes Streeting Image: Chris McAndrew (UK Parliament) CC3.0