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The curious case of Wolverhampton: Why are out-of-town minicabs coming to London?

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Once again things happening far outside London are having an impact in the Capital. This week, it’s up in Wolverhampton, deep in the Black Country, where the Council’s lax licensing policy is wrecking havoc for the rest of us.

Like you, I probably spend far too much time behind the wheel looking for fares and helping people move around this great city. Taxi drivers tend to notice everything – the most minuscule of changes to our environment stick out like a sore thumb, whether its updates to the road network or new venues popping up around London. If you are like this, one of the things you’ve probably noticed recently is more City of Wolverhampton Council (CWC) licensed minicabs working on our roads.

What’s going on?

There are just shy of 100,000 private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers licensed under Transport for London (TfL). Some might say that should be more than enough to cover the demand in our vibrant, global city. So why are there now lots of extra Toyota Priuses licensed in the Black Country roaming down Piccadilly?

The answer is that some people will always want things quick and cheap. We’ve all probably been guilty of that in some way – perhaps a cheap fast-food burger for dinner or the instant gratification of binge-watching a whole TV series in one night? Sadly, for the taxi and PHV industry, this fast, bargain basement outlook has also infected the licensing system in England and it’s affecting not only London, but the whole country. Quite simply, minicab applicants are shopping around for their licence looking for the cheapest deal available.

Wolverhampton Council vs TfL

It’s not just money savings that Wolverhampton can offer applicants. They can also usually offer rapid processing times and have a younger entry level age limit for drivers. Minicab drivers see the council as a great authority to work under, mainly due to their more liberal licensing standards. People as young as 18-years-old, who have held a driver’s licence for 12-months, are able to apply, so long as they also pass a medical, driver assessment and DBS checks. Three-year licences are granted for just £100, plus an extra £40 for a six-hour driver assessment course.

In comparison, TfL requires an applicant to be at least 21-years-old and have held their driver’s licence for at least three years. TfL also demands applicants complete a topographical test, an English speaking and listening test, and a SERU assessment costing a combined £108. A three-year licence also costs £310.

With these contrasts in mind, you can see why some feel compelled to licence themselves outside of the area where they live and plan to work.

Record increase

Since demand for both taxi and PHV services bounced back post-covid, driver numbers have been increasing all over the country, but nowhere like at the levels seen in Wolverhampton. The City of Wolverhampton Council looks on track to expand their pool of licensed drivers by an astonishing 10,000 in 2022/2.

According to a report seen by TaxiPoint, the largest ever increase on record (outside of London) is perhaps unsurprisingly also held by Wolverhampton and currently stands at 5,051 drivers. This is now set to be broken, in fact doubled, by the same authority this financial year. As of 15 December 2022, Wolverhampton had 26,745 drivers, an increase of 7,428 so far this year. Given that there are three more months left, it is likely that the increase will approach 10,000.

Why are ‘out-of-town’ minicab drivers able to work in the capital? This is all comes down to legislation which allows for something termed ‘cross-border hiring’, which refers to a PHV driver in one licensing district picking up a passenger in another district. This is legal, provided either that the driver, vehicle, and operator are all licensed by the first district; or that the operator sub-contracts the booking to an operator licensed in another council area. This practice has become increasingly commonplace since app-based operators started popping up a decade ago, exploiting what is essentially a legal loophole.

For many, this practice is seen as problematic. When a taxi or PHV is being driven for PHV purposes in another district, the local council has no powers to step in if the driver contravenes any condition of the licence or provides a poor service to a passenger. In such circumstances, all that can be done is to write to the authority which issued the licence, where this is known.

This practice is also regarded as unfair on the trade in the local area. The locally licensed driver, who meets all the local requirements asked of them, essentially faces competition from drivers, who have paid cheaper licence fees or undergone less rigorous checks elsewhere.

Until there is sufficient interest from the Government in rectifying this loophole and addressing this practice, we can expect to see more licensing authorities either reducing their own fees or cutting standards to compete, or in some cases basically outsourcing their licensing processes to the City of Wolverhampton to undertake.


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