Congress 2019 Panel 2 – Is London getting a fair deal?
Keith Keen - the Keen Group
Steve Wright – LPHCA
Debbie Wambergue – iChauffeur
Joe Polley - Parker Car Service
Greg Mendoza – Carey Worldwide
Dave Goldring – Europcar/Brunel
Chairman: Mark Bursa, Editor, Professional Driver
Chairman Mark Bursa launched the second session of the day with a short presentation on some of the main issues affecting London. First, he highlighted how 97,000 private hire vehicles made only a comparatively small contribution to pollution in London.
They account for 4% of NOx emissions according to TfL’s own figures, compared with 18% for the 20,000 black cabs. Buses accounted for 31%, with even some of the modern “Boris Buses” not meeting the Euro 6 standard.
And yet private hire operators were now required to pay the Congestion Charge. That meant that drivers or operators of normal petrol or diesel models were having to pay up to £24 per day just to do their jobs. Furthermore, the ULEZ was being expanded in area to the North and South Circular roads.
How should private hire operators respond? Plug-in hybrids providing twenty-five to thirty miles of electric operation were one option, as were pure electric vehicles. Unfortunately there were only 150 charging points in London that were available, and these weren’t reserved for private hire vehicles. Hydrogen might be an option, given that it provided about 250 miles of range, but the cars were still very expensive and there were only around five hydrogen refuelling points in the Capital.
This contrasted with the position of the last diesel black cabs sold in 2017, which would be able to operate until 2032 without being affected by the Congestion Charge or the ULEZ charge. Given this backdrop, it was hardly surprising that the first interactive vote of the session showed that few participants felt they were getting a fair deal from TfL.
Keith Keen of The Keen Group questioned why private hire vehicles should be subject to the Congestion Charge when they were typically used by people who were avoiding the use or ownership of private cars. Private hire was being used by TfL as a cash cow, he said.
Bursa wondered whether the system could be made fairer by, for example, charging less for vehicles that were doing a single drop-off, or using per-minute charging for vehicles that only spent a short amount of time in the relevant zones. Dave Goldring felt time-based charging could be feasible using existing technology such as ANPR.
Joe Polley of Parker Car Service argued that the treatment of private hire was anomalous in that TfL presented the service as part of its own “garage of services” but didn’t give it the exemptions that were enjoyed by other modes of transport.
Greg Mendoza of Carey Worldwide felt that making private hire subject to the Congestion Charge was a stealth tax because private hire wasn’t a particular factor in London congestion. If TfL had wanted to raise revenue from private hire, it should have presented it transparently as a tax, Mendoza said.
Steve Wright explained that he had helped to secure the original exemption from the Congestion Charge for private hire when Ken Livingstone was originally setting the scheme up, and agreed that its later imposition was a stealth tax, as well as “a con” and “politically stupid”, and discriminatory against private hire.
Black cabs were dirty vehicles contributing to congestion and yet they were exempt. On this subject, Wright said the trade had been “LIMOed” - listened to, ignored and moved on - and would need to make the case for changes with the candidates in the forthcoming London mayoral election, pressing for equality with buses and taxis. Private hire needed to insist on an exemption like other forms of transport, not suggest ways making the way the money was paid fairer or more efficient.
Brunel’s David Goldring cautioned that the precise level of impact had yet to be seen and reckoned about 30% of his company’s rides were affected. Joe Polley pointed to methods of mitigating the charge such as getting drivers to do multiple jobs in the zone. His company was also compensating drivers so that they wouldn’t lose out, although projecting, calculating and administering these costs was “a nightmare”.
Debbie Wambergue of iChauffeur also said that drivers shouldn’t be expected to bear the cost of the Congestion Charge and said that her firm too tended to give multiple jobs to anyone entering the zone. The Congestion Charge had also given her company the chance to increase prices, which it had previously held for five years.
She said that her company also planned to join the LPHCA in order to support its lobbying efforts. Goldring said his company was also paying the Congestion Charge on behalf of its drivers and was funding this via a charge of £1.50 that was being applied to all rides, including those that didn’t enter the zone.
Steve Wright from the LPHCA pointed to a number of counter-productive side effects of the imposition of the Congestion Charge on private hire, such as inefficient routing to avoid the zone, and congestion on the London Ring Road which forms the boundary of the Congestion Charge zone.
Mike Galvin felt the loss of the Congestion Charge exemption should be seen in the bigger context of other changes in the pipeline such as further charges and changes in road layouts that might be detrimental to private hire, and the trade needed to gear up to deal with these as well.
Starting a discussion about which vehicles qualified for exemption from ULEZ charges, Bursa felt it wasn’t sensible that non-plug-in hybrids didn’t qualify for the ULEZ. Joe Polley felt that vehicles meeting the requirements, in particular premium PHEVs, all involved compromises such as reduced boot space.
Steve Wright pointed out that some authorities such as Manchester were adopting different standards to those applying in London, which, along with other inconsistencies between local authorities, further complicated the picture.
The lack of EV infrastructure was going to be a particular problem, exacerbated by TfL’s decision to bring its changes forward by twenty months. Another problem was that electric vehicles were in short supply, with long waiting lists. Bursa pointed out that manufacturers such as Kia with its e-Niro were prioritising private customers with their limited allocations of cars. Decent availability of suitable cars could still be five years away.
Goldring felt the manufacturers wanted plug-in cars to be seen as “cool” and that selling them to private hire operators rather than private customers didn’t seem to fit the bill. Polley highlighted one particular problem which was that many drivers didn’t have the ability to charge an EV or PHEV at home.
Steve Wright felt more should be made of the private hire trade’s potential political clout when dealing with the politicians - there were far more private hire drivers than black cab drivers, and they and their families all had votes, although the black cab trade was better organised and connected, politically speaking.
Finally, Bursa moved the discussion on to the new licence fee system in London. Debbie Wambergue said that it was difficult to work out how the bands worked and questioned the fairness of charging smaller players far more per vehicle than larger operators.
Several panellists were considering or had considered the option of moving out of London. Joe Polley thought there was no particular advantage to being registered in London, while Keith Keen said that licensing more vehicles via its Weymouth office was an option. Europcar/Brunel’s Goldring said “watch this space”.
Steve Wright felt that the licence rates had been sprung at very short notice and took very little account of the prior consultation, but could prove to be counter-productive for TfL if operators left; a thousand or so had already dropped out in the past eighteen months to two years, or had merged in response to the banding of the new licence fees.
Q6 Do Private hire operators get a fair deal in London from Transport for London?
Overwhelming proof of dissatisfaction with TfL, with more than 85% of participants feeling let down by the regulator.
Q7 Has the loss of congestion charge exemption affected your business?
Few positives from losing C-Charge exemption, with more than half the delegates reporting a negative impact. More than a third had seen no effect – mainly operators focused outside London.
Q8 Have your raised your fares since the loss of C-Charge exemption and the introduction of the ULEZ?
More than half of participants had passed the Congestion Charge on to their customer in full and only 3.4% had chosen to swallow the increase.
Q9 Is your car fleet ULEZ compliant?
Less than half the audience currently had a fully-ULEZ compliant fleet, highlighting the difficulty in renewing vehicles with cleaner ones on short notice.
Q10 Has the introduction of the ULEZ affected your vehicle buying plans?
The introduction of the ULEZ has influenced the vehicle buying plans of participants, with 35% intending to buy new standard hybrids or diesels by the end of 2019, and only one in five planning to switch to PHEVs.
Q11 What are the main obstacles to buying electric cars?
Obstacles to adopting EVs are many and varied – and a combination of factors is the main problem for most operators, including vehicle cost, charging infrastructure availability and comfort/quality. Interesting to note that nobody cited performance or range as the main obstacle.