Richard North, 20/04/2012  
 

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In The Times today, amazingly not skulking behind the paywall, is a story shared by The Guardian over the taxi firm Addison Lee taking on Transport for London (TfL) over access to bus lanes.

The company's chairman, John Griffin, is arguing that it is unfair for TfL to permit the 24,000 licensed black taxi cabs to use the bus lanes, but not the 60,000 licensed private hire cars.

"The current Bus Lane legislation is anti-competitive and unfairly discriminates against the millions of passengers that use Addison Lee," Griffin says. "Minicabs perform the same function as black taxis and are licensed by the same authority, so there is no reason that they should be penalised due to outdated legislation".

But what makes this spat very different is several ways is the Addison Lee, with its 3,500 drivers, is a £250,000 donor to the Conservatives, with Griffin having had access to Cameron and his ministers. Yet, clearly frustrated with trying to deal with an unresponsive system, he is mounting a mass campaign of civil disobedience to get the rules changed.

Griffin has thus instructed his drivers to disregard the restriction on the company-operated vehicles, and barge in on the black cabs' territory – against a promise that he will pay the fines. So far, about two dozen Addison Lee drivers have been issued with penalty charge notices. More drivers got away with it because of a lack of enforcement cameras, the company said.

Predictably, TfL officials have reacting with stone-faced threats and legal action. They have called Griffin's move "irresponsible" and have said that the campaign could ultimately force TfL to reconsider the firm's licence to trade altogether.

If Griffin persists in urging his drivers to use the restricted lanes, the transport body could investigate his "fitness" to hold a private hire operator's licence – a test that is usually aimed at rooting out people with criminal backgrounds. And on Monday, TfL will go to the high court to seek an injunction to force Griffin to withdraw his instruction to his drivers.

Griffin said the threat to his licence was "bullying tactics" and accused TfL of "staggering bias" in favour of the black cab trade, which he claims holds undue power over politicians because its members are strongly unionised.

Behind this, though, is seriously big business. Around 3.2 million people take taxis and minicabs in London each week, according to a London Chamber of Commerce report. Even if each fare averages only £10, that means total annual revenues in excess of £1.6bn, with a windfall to come with the Olympics in a little over three months' time.

Against this, TfL is protecting its own bureaucracy and a raft of fee-generating activities which include £154 for a black cab inspection, £250 for the London "knowledge" test and £199 for a three-year taxi driver license.

For a black cab driver to get on the road, he has to pay TfL well over £1000 and for that, the authority needs to be able to offer some incentive. Its monopoly power over access to bus lanes gives it the leverage, and enables it to maintain its cash flow.

However, with modern computer technology and high-tech communications, there is getting to be less and less difference between black cabs and the "high end" operators like Addison Lee. To that extent that the black cab licensing system has become a historical relic, of little advantage to the public. Its main purpose is now to keep ranks of officials employed and taxi fares high.

But, when even big business sees the only way to get the rules changed is to mount a civil disobedience campaign, it says much for the inflexibility of the rules and their custodians.

Then, law-making and administration have now become a revenue generating industry in their own right, kept in place for the benefit of its administrators.  Now it is being challenged and, predictably, it does not like the experience.

The ultimate irony, though, is that this bus lane war puts London mayor Boris Johnson on the spot. He chairs TfL, yet accepted a £25,000 campaign donation that helped him win office in 2008. The "laughing buffoon" may soon have his work cut out to justify his position.

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