Chauffeur crisis in the capital?
The chauffeur industry has a proud heritage, and nowhere more so than on the roads of London Town. But what’s gone wrong and why are so many operators completely disillusioned with the current state of our profession in the capital?
Andy Dubberley investigates just what’s going on…
There are a lot of very unhappy chauffeurs in the smoke, operators who think the chauffeur industry has lost both its high standing and its high standards. Although I’m someone who is licensed outside of town I spend much of my time in it, so looking inwards I’ve seen the industry have a tough time in the capital over the last few years and it really is a tough place to be earning a living right now.
Many operators well and truly lay the blame for the state of play in the capital at the door of the Public Carriage Office and as it is they who have responsibility for licensing the taxi and private hire trade in London, disillusioned chauffeurs are now questioning whether the organisation is actually fit for purpose. There’s no doubt that the PCO certainly does have a strong case to answer and the general feeling is that they’re quite simply a law unto themselves at times and out of their depth.
Okay, it’s accepted the PCO is a large organisation with considerable responsibility, so the process isn’t going to run perfectly all of the time, but it’s clear the chaotic approach to licensing displayed over recent years has been to the detriment of good, hard working chauffeurs who certainly don’t feel that they’ve received value for money considering the high fees they’re expected to fork out.
Another complaint frequently heard from the decent chauffeurs in the capital is the licensing process simply isn’t strict enough and this fact alone has led to London becoming flooded with poor quality taxi, minicab drivers and so-called ‘chauffeurs’, (the term being used very loosely in far too many cases). This is a fair point and hard evidence strongly supports this view.
On the Chauffeur Network UK Facebook forum, we have heard first hand accounts from group members who have witnessed applicants having their topographical tests completed for them because they simply don’t have a level of English anywhere near the standard required to complete either the examinations or the accompanying forms. We’ve heard the medical examination described as a ‘joke’ and there’s an abundance of proof that certain companies specialising in fast track PCO applications are treating the whole process as a cash cow. There should be an investigation and the culprits shut down.
The licensing of individuals responsible for the safe and secure transportation of London’s paying public has become farcical and never has the old adage ‘quantity over quality’ being more apt. The PCO does indeed require radical change and a desire to serve those doing the job properly in London.
At the time of writing, the PCO has just announced some changes to tighten up on licensing, including stricter insurance requirements and English language tests but why has it taken so long to put new rules in place that have been basic requirements for other licensing authorities outside of the capital for years? The PCO has allegedly been issuing a thousand licences per week in recent times so it’s all too little too late in many respects. Boris Johnson announced the introduction of English language tests exactly twelve months ago but still things remain the same.
This unstoppable race to licence such an inordinate number of drivers has resulted in industry standards tumbling and passenger security being compromised. The chauffeur industry, once a proud and respected profession, has been lumped into the all encompassing term private hire and it’s a sad fact the dross which used to be a by product of the minicab trade is now just as likely to be found at the wheel of a luxury executive saloon.
Chauffeuring shouldn’t be a ‘job’ that people do when they can’t get anything else but that is what it’s become in some cases. It used to be a profession people looked up to, where there was some pride in being able to tell people what you did for a living, rather than being one of thousands of ‘drivers’. Of course, there are many operators who are determined to maintain those high standards but they’re not getting any credit for doing so.
Any of us regularly using the M4 back and forth between town and Heathrow will have seen a very obvious and completely shocking deterioration of driving standards and ability in recent years. Lack of simple lane discipline and general motorway driving knowledge has dropped to dangerous levels because far too many PCO licensed drivers just don’t have enough experience on UK roads to be considered safe.
Of course there are bad British-born drivers, but I stand by my view that it is far too easy to swap an overseas driving licence for a British one and start earning a living carrying fare paying passengers.
I don’t care where you were born or what your skin colour is, surely the time has come to introduce a requirement to produce proof that some form of advanced driver training has been undertaken and you are actually competent behind the wheel before you’re handed a licence in London, or anywhere else for that matter.
The fact that the PH industry has been allowed to get to a point where drivers are able to buy a seven-day insurance policy and hire a Prius by the hour says everything about the lack of professionalism and pride in what they do. Let’s hope the PCO actually do crack down on this corner cutting, and soon.
The other factors
Licensing is only one issue chauffeurs in the capital are having to fight with on a daily basis. Transport for London’s obsession with forcing the car off London’s road system is making earning a living in the smoke a very difficult thing to do. Boris Johnson recently announced the Congestion Charge would need to be raised in the coming months to help reduce gridlock, a bizarre statement to say the least when he’s the one overseeing the loss of great swaths of the road network to placate the cycling fraternity.
TfL refuse point blank to listen to London’s professional drivers when they say the major cause of the gridlock is down to the so called ‘improvements’ Boris and his cronies are putting in place, but I’m convinced that in an office somewhere at TfL HQ, there are a small number of people who are already realising the negative impact these changes are having on businesses but just can’t admit it. How did the planners ever think removing entire stretches of road on the main route between West London’s major transport hubs and one of the world’s most important financial districts wasn’t going to cause complete chaos? They clearly didn’t learn anything after being forced to remove the infamous M4 bus lane all those years ago.
Who’s to blame
I’ve already pointed the finger at TfL and specifically the PCO because they have seemingly lost control of an already desperate situation. They’re not the only ones at fault in this debacle though, some of the large chauffeur firms who operate a numbers game also have to take a long hard look at themselves. I’m fully aware that a number of companies do indeed have good quality control processes in place when it comes to driver selection, but for too many others it’s nothing more than getting bums on seats and sending them out onto the streets untrained and professionally ill equipped to maintain the industry standards of the past.
The customer also has to take some responsibility because it’s their choice has to whether they want to pay the bare minimum for a ‘driver’ or a more sensible rate for a ‘chauffeur’. It’s been economically tough for a few years and budgets have been squeezed but the corporates can’t continue to use that excuse indefinitely.
I’m certainly not the only chauffeur whose heard horror stories from clients about their experiences with London drivers and the various companies who employ them, but instead of putting up with it these passengers need to take their genuine concerns to those responsible for booking their transport and insist that they go back to employing the services of high quality chauffeur firms, with high quality drivers.
Unfortunately, the big boys with their multi-vehicle private hire fleets offer the convenience many customers want in the fast moving business world and the days of being willing to pay a good daily rate to have a professional chauffeur with their S500 sat outside your office in case they were needed have long gone.
The major problem is the line between the chauffeur and private hire industries is now blurred beyond recognition and the middle ‘E-Class’ ground could either get you a really good quality, old school chauffeur or an unkempt, and sometimes unsafe ‘person at the wheel’ who barely speaks English and is totally reliant on the sat nav.
We’d all love every licensing authority to put rules in place which distinguish between chauffeurs and private hire but short of decreeing that ‘you’re only a chauffeur if you’ve got a long wheelbase car’, (which is of course both impractical and non-sensical), I’ve really no idea how we could be separated and considered more ‘elite’, if that’s the right word.
There’s a lot of talk about the advantages of proper training and advanced qualifications but the response from the old guard would be to accuse the PCO of introducing more excuses to extract money and I fear the doubters would win such an argument. Further, the sheer amount of bureaucracy required to change the legalities of licensing to accommodate professional qualifications would make your head spin. We do, however, live in continual hope.
Despite me painting a rather depressing picture, I really do think there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. They may not be going about it the right way, but it appears the PCO are about to make significant changes, so I hope for the sake of my London colleagues, they turn out to be radical enough to shake the PH industry up and right a few wrongs, although I’m sure many operators won’t be holding their breath.
The tide is turning, albeit slowly, because clients are getting fed up of the poor standards displayed by far too many drivers and are beginning to hunt out ‘proper’ chauffeurs once again. I’ve always said that the relationship between driver and passenger is a very close one within the confines of a car and the customer in the back has every right to feel relaxed, safe and secure.
The likes of Uber have become a strange anomaly because in a relatively short time they’ve gone from representing a cost effective and convenient way to travel to becoming synonymous with a dramatic drop in standards. Perhaps this is not particularly fair as there are of course a large amount of very competent operators working for Uber but there are also plenty of atrocious ones who are forcing customers to look at better quality alternatives and that can only be good for the chauffeur industry.
It’s a very tough market out there but there’s a lot of chauffeurs who have yet to realise having the right car alone doesn’t make you a special case. What do you offer and what credentials do you have that puts you above the rest? There’s no automatic right of passage because you own an £80k car anymore, there’s way too much competition in London and elsewhere for that alone to attract potential clients.
Nothing lasts for ever and the good times chauffeurs have had in the capital are seemingly a thing of the past. Of course there’s still opportunities for the right people but starting out must be very hard work at the moment. A lot rests on what direction the PCO takes with regards to licensing and if they genuinely recognise standards have to rise dramatically to save the industry and protect the public.
One thing’s for sure, the good guys deserve a much better deal from the powers that be in their ivory towers.
Source : The Chauffeur