In this month’s Q&A session, Steve McNamara, General Secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA), tells us about the challenges faced during a difficult 2020, but also what the industry can expect and even look forward to moving into 2021.
2020 has been a memorable year for all the wrong reasons. In your position as LTDA General Secretary what has been your biggest challenge?
“Unsurprisingly, coronavirus has been by far the biggest challenge, and the biggest threat facing the taxi trade this year and probably since I have been in this role. Every industry is struggling and pretty much every aspect of life has been affected, so it has been difficult to be heard above all the noise and to get our members the support they need. At the LTDA, we’ve been doing everything we can to help drivers through this crisis, whether that’s helping people access the SEISS grants, providing advice, lobbying the Government and Mayor of London to try and get additional support for those who need it and working with the media to shine a light on the challenges cabbies are facing. It’s been an uphill battle and there is no end in sight, but we will keep fighting to make sure the taxi trade survives and comes out the other side.
“At the LTDA too, we’ve had to adapt and find new ways of working to make sure we were able to support drivers effectively through both lockdowns and at all times throughout this crisis. It’s not been easy for anyone but we are still here and we are working hard to support our members and protect their livelihoods.”
In a tough year what has been your biggest achievement in 2020?
“It feels like getting through this year is enough of an achievement to be honest, but one highlight was definitely the Chancellor of the Exchequer calling me personally to tell me he was introducing the SEISS to help struggling drivers and other self-employed people. I had no idea who he was when he called me, until a civil servant came on the line and explained who I was talking to. It’s a shame he hasn’t been so responsive when it comes to our pleas for additional support for those who haven’t been able to access any support!
“In the early part of this year, I was also incredibly proud to see how well the trade was doing and the fantastic progress it was making in becoming not just the best, but also the cleanest and greenest cab service in the world. More and more drivers were investing in ZEC taxis and the trade was doing the best it had in years. There were still challenges and threats, but drivers were embracing change and were being rewarded for doing so and I could see a bright future ahead. I hope we can continue to build on that once the current crisis is over.”
Has the support provided to the taxi industry from the Government been adequate? What support would you like to see in 2021?
“The Government support for the taxi trade has been woefully inadequate. We’ve had to fight for support at every turn. First, they failed to immediately recognise the needs of the self-employed and provide financial support for them. When they did eventually introduce the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) it was extremely welcome, but since then it’s been a constant battle to keep it at a level that will provide drivers with a decent level of income, with the Government constantly threatening to cut it and failing to realise how catastrophic the collapse in passenger demand had been for the trade.
“Too many drivers also haven’t been able to claim any support at all, whether it’s those who are new to the trade or perhaps most unfairly those who have recently purchased a new zero emission capable taxi and claimed capital allowances against it. Those drivers did the right thing and now feel like they are being punished for doing so. This can’t be right.
“Policymakers have also been far too slow to realise the impact of the crisis on the trade, only now are the Department for Transport talking about how to get PPE to taxi drivers and they have also only recently provided detailed safer travel guidance for the sector despite the LTDA and other sector organisations having been calling for this since the start of the crisis almost 10 months ago!
“In other areas of the UK, additional financial support has been provided for taxi drivers in recognition of the huge challenges they face. We’ve seen schemes to provide financial support for drivers in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Liverpool City Region and Sheffield City Region. I hope that the Mayor of London and Government finally step up and provide the same for drivers in England and specifically in London, and we will keep lobbying them to do so.
“The Mayor and TfL’s approach to promoting walking and cycling in response to the pandemic has also been a disaster for this city and their decision to exclude licensed taxis from key routes and take away their right to go where buses go, has been hugely damaging for the taxi trade and the passengers we serve. Talk about kicking someone when they are down! The initial Streetspace announcement in May, which set out plans for bus-only corridors across key areas of central London, where taxis do most of their trade, was a huge blow for confidence and we saw many drivers deciding to pack it in as a result. In the end they have scaled back the plans in the face of opposition from the LTDA and others, but there are still a number of schemes that have removed taxi access like the Bishopsgate bus gate and other measures like the pop-up cycle lanes are causing havoc.
“As for 2021, let’s hope testing and the vaccine are the silver bullets that get drivers back to work and passengers back in cabs. We are calling for taxi drivers – who I believe should be considered key workers – to be one of the early groups to receive the vaccine. I also want to see an end to the damaging cycle of lockdowns and removal of restrictions like the hospitality curfew, so that we can get people back into central London and get London moving again. We also need the Government, TfL and London Boroughs to look again at the relentless focus on promoting active travel and the traffic measures being put in place across the capital, that are bringing London to a standstill. They need to make sure that any measures they’ve put in place work for all road users and that this is not being done at the expense of London’s recovery. London is not a theme park, it’s a living, breathing, working city and it’s high time people recognise this!”
Do you see a slow or sharp recovery for the taxi industry once leisure and travel restrictions are lifted?
“Before the pandemic, the taxi trade in London was doing well. At the beginning of this year, we were having the best kipper season ever. With ZEC taxis and contactless card payments, we were attracting new customers and things were on the up. As I keep telling people, the taxi trade is a viable industry that was thriving pre-Covid and can be again once restrictions are lifted and life starts to return to some kind of normality. There was a brief period in the summer when trade had started to pick up as restrictions were eased, there was still a long way to go don’t get me wrong, but this showed how the trade can bounce back. So I would expect there to be a sharp recovery.
“However, this requires an end to lockdowns and the most harmful restrictions, which keep people out of central London. We need to get people back to work and get London moving again as soon as possible. In the meantime, we also need short term financial support to ensure that drivers can keep their cabs on the road and are not put out of business permanently. One of the biggest threats to that recovery is cabs potentially being repossessed – many of our members are now starting to receive letters from finance companies threatening to take their cabs away, and if that happens they won’t be able to come back.”
The taxi fleet size has dramatically reduced during the pandemic. How will the fleet bounce back in numbers next year?
“Many of the older vehicles that have been taken off the road, may sadly never come back. But as restrictions ease and passenger demand picks up, we should start to see confidence returning to the trade and people who have temporarily hung up their badges to find other work or because they can’t earn enough to cover the running costs, getting their cabs back on the road. Eventually, we should also start to see drivers investing in new zero emission vehicles again. Ironically, the devastating reduction in the size of the fleet means that ZEC cabs now make up over a quarter of the taxi fleet – I just hope we don’t start to lose them in the next few months.”