‘Why doesn’t Britain produce tech companies of the same calibre as Google, Facebook and Amazon?’ It’s a common question heard at many a tech event. To see one of the reasons you only have to look at Transport for London’s proposed rules for the city’s private-hire taxi industry.
The capital’s transport regulator has found itself in the crossfire of two powerful and determined lobbying campaigns as the taxi app Uber and the drivers of London’s black cabs have demanded regulations that are friendly to them. Uber has few friends among the cabbies, who are unhappy about it undercutting them by providing what they see as an inferior – and less safe – service. But plenty of customers have nonetheless been swayed by its cheap prices and the ease of ordering a cab from their phone.
The latest gamut of private hire regulations was first approved back in March. But now London has a new mayor in the form of Sadiq Khan and the Brexit fallout has died down a bit, Uber is rocking the boat again. Last week it emailed customers urging them to ask Khan to rethink ‘the bureaucratic new rules... [that] threaten the livelihood of thousands of drivers.’
Now every business is subject to some regulation. And given that private hire operators are trusted to transport millions of potentially vulnerable people, TfL has a duty to occasionally revisit the rules to make sure they are keeping people safe. You can debate the merits of forcing all drivers to pass a written English test and providing customers with a manned 24hr hotline to call until the cows come home.
But what is especially troubling is a new rule forcing Uber (and those of its ilk) to notify TfL ‘before changing its operating model.’ This seems profoundly unreasonable. Provided they operate within the legal framework that already exists, businesses should be free to change the way they operate as they see fit, not be forced to submit their plans for approval by some apparatchik. This is increasingly vital in a business world that’s more fast-moving and agile than ever.
This has provoked a rightful kickback from business groups including the IoD, whose director general was signatory to a letter to the Financial Times yesterday decrying the move as a ‘backward step’ that could prevent entrepreneurs experimenting – to the detriment of consumers. They also warned it could set a ‘worrying precedent across government’. It would certainly be undesirable for other organs of state to be stamping on the toes of innovation in such a way. And even Uber's main private hire rival Addison Lee, which supports most of the regulations, has been clear that it doesn't agree with this.
Since the country voted for Brexit, Sadiq Khan has done his best to show that London is still open to the world. Doing away with this rule would demonstrate that the city is no enemy of innovation – a necessary, if not sufficient, quality it will need if it wants to continue to be taken seriously in the global technology industry.
Image credit: Garry Knight/Flickr