'London could lose this icon': Black cab crisis as vehicle numbers plummet

18 November 2020, 07:55

Record numbers of black cabs are being sold back to hiring firms
Record numbers of black cabs are being sold back to hiring firms. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

London is at risk of losing its iconic black cab industry as new research shows one in five black cabs in London has been taken off the road since June.

The number of taxis licensed in the capital plummeted from 18,900 on June 7 to 15,000 on November 8 - the largest drop in decades.

Black cab rental firms have been forced to hire fields and farmland around the edge of the city to store vehicles handed back by drivers in recent months.

The Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association (LTDA) believes only 20% of cabbies are still driving their vehicles, with many only earning "starvation wages" - around a quarter of normal earnings.

Read more: Expert urges against 'flip-flopping' between pandemic and economy

General secretary Steve McNamara said drivers "are doing desperate things" such as selling their taxis for well below market value to "get through the next few months", he added.

The pandemic has been a "complete and utter nightmare" for cabbies who have "fallen through the gaps" in the Treasury's furlough scheme, he added.

Fields and car parks are being hired by taxi firms to store cabs taken off the road
Fields and car parks are being hired by taxi firms to store cabs taken off the road. Picture: PA Images

Those left out of the scheme include drivers who recently bought a new £65,000 electric taxi, or receive a small pension from a previous job, and have received little help despite receiving "no income at all" since March, Mr McNamara said.

"We're in a position now where London could lose this icon," he said. "We're a very viable business. We're an integral part of this city's DNA.

"We need a specific package that's targeted towards taxi drivers in London just to help us get through this."

London cabbie Andy Biggs, 63, said demand has "evaporated" and he is lucky if he has three customers a day.

"When we first went back after the initial lockdown, things started to get a little bit better very slowly," he said. "But now it's as dead as it's ever been."

Read more: Transport for London secures £1.8 billion government bailout

LTDA figures show drivers arriving at Heathrow Airport's taxi park last month waited an average of nine hours before being dispatched to pick up a passenger.

North London-based rental company GB Taxi Services has seen the occupation rate of its fleet of 100 black cabs plummet from 95% before the crisis to just 10%, despite halving its fees to encourage drivers to hold on to their vehicles.

It is one of two firms using an area of farmland in Epping Forest, Essex, to store around 220 unwanted taxis so they can stop paying to insure them.

The plan to store cabs in fields backfired, however, when intruders stole catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters from nearly a quarter - making them illegal to drive on the roads.

Simon Georgiou, a director at GB Taxi Services, said: "We got our knees taken away with Covid and loads of vehicles getting handed back. Then this theft happens, which cost in excess of £120,000. We're in a right mess."

Another rental firm, Sherbet London, has hired a car park to help store 400 unoccupied cabs - or two-thirds of its fleet.

Chief executive Asher Moses said: "The whole trade has suffered. There must be 2,000 taxis on fields at the moment."

Read more: Next two weeks 'crucial' in ensuring lockdown ends, Sage expert says

He accused ministers of failing to deliver on their commitments during the pandemic.

"When Covid struck, we had the Government say 'don't worry we will support businesses like yourselves'. But unfortunately they did not, and they left us out to rot," Mr Moses said.

TfL said it has provided drivers with "practical advice on a number of issues" during the crisis, and insisted black cabs "remain an integral part of the transport network".