None of us should be surprised by Uber’s reaction to proposals to change how London’s growing number of minicabs are regulated. As a general rule US companies do not like regulation and when any is suggested, or changes to existing rules considered, tend to make a lot of noise.
So it is with Uber which has launched a petition against proposals it claims would “mean an end to the Uber you know and love today”.
But Uber entered what it must’ve known was a regulated market and presumably realised that eventually those regulations would be reviewed and that not every change would suit its commercial wants. Enforced change was a risk it accepted when it set up shop in London.
The firm’s protest has been bolstered by a myriad of small-government, free market commentators who have denounced Transport for London (but manage to omit any mention of the Conservative mayor who runs it and who many of the same voices would like to see lead his party) for daring to meddle in the marketplace.
Others have gone as far as to accuse the agency of seeking nothing less than to shut down the Google-backed car service at the behest of London’s black cab trade.
And yet those same apparently anti-Uber executives are routinely accused – by the very cabbies they’re claimed to be in cahoots with – of being in Uber’s pocket.
TfL’s decision, based on legal advice, that Uber’s app is not a taximeter provoked a flood of complaints and protests which have gone on to generate acres of headlines.
But even if Uber suddenly vanished from London’s streets – and it won’t – the cabbies and their regulator would not suddenly become pals. Relations between the two have been bad for a long time and it would take a lot more than eliminating Uber to change that.
Drivers were already unhappy when former Mayor Ken Livingstone imposed six-monthly checks on their vehicles, got angrier when Boris Johnson re-instated them having initially delivered on a pledge to scrap them, and routinely rail against TfL for failing to clamp down on illegal minicab marshals and touts.
Many are also unhappy that the agency allows minicab firms to open local satellite offices – where drivers can sit and wait for customers – near popular locations and venues but fails to provide sufficient ranks to allow them to compete for custom.
As the London Assembly recently said in an all-party report, this last issue “is seen by some as evidence of further bias by TfL against the taxi trade”.
While there are cabbies who try to work constructively with TfL to build bridges and put a human face on their grievances, there are a large number who prefer to tweet and email comments about the executives in charge of licensing the two trades which are so profane and libellous that it’s impossible to repeat them.
Over the years I’ve been copied in on some of these, others I’ve been shown and many I wish I could unsee.
These messages – and the implied threats some contain – mean that the officials in question have no reason to do the cabbies any favours and TfL’s status as a public body means it has no scope or remit to favour the cab trade over operators like Uber.
Nor, as some claim, has TfL’s review of minicab regulations arrived out of nowhere in an attempt to see off protests such as the September 16th demo at City Hall which left one security guard needing hospital treatment.
The proposals published this week are the latest stage in a major review of private hire regulations which has already been through, and was informed by, one public consultation.
Some of the most contentious proposals now being consulted are derived directly from that earlier consultation including, according to this TfL report, “a requirement that apps for private hire work should be authorised by us, with possible constraints such as a prohibition on apps showing vehicles available for hire and a requirement that driver apps require biometric security to prevent unlicensed drivers using sign-on details of licensed drivers”.
TfL itself made no mention of apps in the 25 questions originally consulted on but it’s done what a good regulator is meant to do and allowed feedback and responses from Uber, other mini cab firms, cabbies and other stakeholders to shape the process.
Now the same stakeholders, plus members of the public, will have the chance to comment on this week’s revised proposals.
Those who support or oppose the changes and want to influence the final decision need to take part in the consultation and not be distracted by petitions and other campaigns which aren’t part of the formal process.
A lawyer with experience in this field tells me public bodies don’t have to give equal consideration to template responses sent via one party’s website or other campaign tool as they do to detailed responses submitted via the official consultation site or response form.
This is because generic responses cannot be argued to be the considered opinion of the respondent as they’ve been written by a group or company rather than the individual whose name they’re submitted in and will be identical to those sent in by a couple of hundred or thousand other people.
Once the deadline (23 December 2015) for responses has passed TfL, as it’s legally obliged to, will consider the responses it receives before announcing any final amendments to the current regulations.
Those amendments won’t be the result of imagined alliances between parties who in reality loathe one another or unfounded allegations of bungs but careful consideration of the facts and feedback.
Boris’s administration spends a small fortune on some of the UK’s best lawyers specifically to ensure its decision making is proper and robust which is why Judicial Reviews of his rents policy and the decision to axe fire stations failed and why, should it come, any challenge to the new minicab rules will also be rejected.