“ALBERT Square please?”
Until legislation happens you may find yourself in a taxi with a driver who literally has no idea, outside his Sat Nav, of where he is.
“Sorry I’m new, which way is that?”
I looked at the driver, he looked back at me blankly. I looked down my particular street in my particular bit of Old Trafford suburbia and sighed.
I felt like saying, ‘You know Albert Square. It’s in London, that place on TV where Cockneys shout at each other all the time, Eastenders. Could you get me there in fifteen minutes?’
Instead I said, “It’s the square with all the markets, in front of Manchester Town Hall, that big building, probably the most famous in the city.”
“Is it near Portley Street?” he said.
Portley Street, the street that doesn't exist.
I looked at the time and wondered whether to get out, complain to the mini-cab firm I’ve been using for years, and wait for a cabbie who knew the bloody basics of Manchester geography. But I needed to get on.
“I’ll direct you, turn round, and then go down Kings Road and Upper Chorlton Road,” I said.
He looked at me blankly.
“Of course,” I said, “you don’t know where they are. First right, third left and then to the lights and right, and then....let's go.”
We set off.
“How come you didn’t have a knowledge test?” I asked trying to catch his eye. “Not to know the location of Manchester Town Hall is ridiculous.”
“I’m not from Manchester,” he said. “I’m from Rossendale.”
That was why the cab had been brightly coloured, a fact that had niggled with me when I’d got into the vehicle. All Manchester mini-cabs have to be white or something called 'true silver'.
“So you shouldn’t be driving here should you? That's illegal isn't it?
"No," he said in his halting English. "I have a hackney cab licence from Rossendale Council which means I can be a private hire cab driver anywhere in the country."
"That can't be true," I said.
Oh yes it can.
A few years back Newcastle people started to realise that drivers given Hackney Cab licences in Berwick-on-Tweed, north of the city, were skipping down to the 'big city' on the weekends, operating as private hire cabs, and scooping up the dosh doled out by the partying Geordie hordes.
This led to a court case and eventually to loophole land. And me in a cab with a clueless driver.
Rossendale Council (it's not just drivers in Rossendale who are doing this by the way) wrote to Confidential over their wandering cabbies thus.
'Once a vehicle has been licensed as a hackney carriage it is a hackney carriage for the duration of that licence, wherever it is currently located, and can therefore be used for pre-booked purposes in any district in England and Wales. Additionally it is not an offence for a licensed private hire operator to take bookings for, and then dispatch a hackney carriage licensed by a district which is different from that which licenses the operator, a hackney carriage can lawfully be used to pre-booked work outside its district.'
Apart from London. Of course.
In perfect, passionless, legalese (aka halting English) Rossendale continued.
'The Law Commission are...looking to improve the enforcement of conditions. The existence of national standards for private hire and minimum standards for taxis will itself make enforcement easier, particularly cross-border enforcement (that is, enforcement by an officer of a licensing authority other than that which licenses the taxi or private hire vehicle). Additionally they will make proposals designed to improve cross-border enforcement, and look at the extent to which enforcement officers’ powers could be strengthened.'
So until legislation happens you may find yourself in a taxi with a driver who literally has no idea, outside his Sat Nav, of where he is.
Unless it's Portley Street.
It's not just the public that are upset. The legitimate Manchester private hire cabbies are fuming as well.
Checking up with the city council and with individual drivers we got some figures.
To start out as a private hire driver in Manchester you need to spend £197 on a driver licence and £161 on a vehicle application if you have a brand new vehicle.
For a vehicle under five years it's £223. For one between five and seven years it's £300.
So £358 minimum and £446 maximum.
These amounts include a knowledge test that you have to pass, otherwise you have to re-sit for £36.
Another element to take into consideration in Manchester is that private hire vehicles aren't allowed to be older than seven years.
All these measures are in place to help ensure that cabbies are equipped with the knowledge and the safety standards to handle city streets - see the Manchester city council quote below.
Rossendale lads, for a Hackney cab licence, are getting away with a little over £300 setting up fee (in Manchester a new Hackney Cab licence is £533 at a minimum). Bless them. And they don't have to take a knowledge test at all. Nor is there an age qualification for the cars as long as there is an MOT in place for the vehicle.
This is palpably unfair on both drivers and passengers in Manchester.
One operator in a prominent south Manchester private hire firm told Confidential, "I've taken on six or seven Rossendale drivers to make a point to Manchester licensing authority. I'm telling them this is unfair and the law needs to be changed. I reckon there are about 200 operating in the area."
There's is no record at Manchester city council of any complaint being lodged by private hire operators.
The operator didn't want to be named.
"Fella," I said, "here's the fare but I can't give you a tip because you had no idea of where you were going. I had to do all the work. You understand don't you?"
One of his drivers, who also didn't want to be named, understandably, said to Confidential. "Our company has at least 20 of the out of town drivers working here, not six or seven, and we have to take all the complaints from regulars about them not knowing where they are going and also we pay more per year for doing this. It's really bad."
He paused for breath, "In the end it's about the operators wanting the £100 radio hire (the amount drivers pay to operators for having work passed on to them). If they get drivers in who want to pay that then they don't care where they get them from."
Confidential knows Manchester city council's taxi licensing department is deeply unhappy about the situation but are 'awaiting the Law Commission's report'.
As for Rossendale, it seems the council doesn't think it's their problem. Until the law changes it's just one of those things if their residents are taking Hackney Cabs outside the authority boundaries and operating as dizzy and confused private hire drivers. Technically they're right.
Back to Albert Square.
"Fella," I said to my bewildered cabbie, "here's the fare but I can't give you a tip because you had no idea of where you were going. I had to do all the work. You understand?"
"I do, but you see there's more work down here that's why I come, and it's cheaper to qualify," he said.
I admired his candour, but then he took the biscuit. And then the whole tin of biscuits.
“Excuse me," he said handing over the change. "I've just had a job radio-ed in. Where’s the University on Oxford Road?”
Follow Jonathan Schofield here @JonathSchofield
City Council statement
Councillor Nigel Murphy, Manchester City Council's executive member for the environment told Confidential: "Manchester licensed vehicles must be clearly marked, regularly tested to a high standard and no more than seven years old, while our licensed drivers have to undergo knowledge and English language tests. Unfortunately, at the moment there is nothing to stop hackney cab drivers licensed by other authorities which don't share these high standards working as private hire drivers for Manchester companies.
"We have spoken to all Manchester operators expressing our concerns about this and asking them not to use drivers licensed in other areas. The vast majority share our view, as they do not to risk their companies' reputations being tarnished by drivers who may have no local knowledge, poor language skills and may be driving sub-standard vehicles. Disappointingly, a tiny handful of Manchester companies do now use out-of-town drivers, but we have no reason to think the practice is set to increase.
"The legislation concerning taxi licensing dates from a time before this situation was anticipated, and the Law Commission has launched a consultation aimed at bringing the statute books up to date. Along with many other licensing authorities, we raised our concerns about this loop-hole in our response and I look forward to seeing what changes they recommend."
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