Friday, 20 April 2012

The battle of the bus lanes


In The Times today, amazingly not skulking behind the paywall, is a story shared by The Guardianover 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as black taxis and are licensed by the same authority, so there is no reason that they should be penalised due to outdated legislation".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.


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

United in their greed


It's taken it long enough, but even The Telegraph is putting two and two together, to discover that local authority parking fees are largely motivated by greed – a direct tax on the motorist, for which there is no democratic (or any) mandate.

This discovery is driven by the news that, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, the council has made £30,000 from parking machines that won't give change, demonstrating yet again that the rules are a one-way street. The council is quite happy to take the excess, but if hapless motorists overstay their time, the fines are instant and savage, backed by a ruthless disregard for the law.

However, unlike the newspaper, its own commenters have a better understanding of the bigger picture. With the political pressure to keep limit rises in the headline rates of Council Tax, councils are avoiding the discipline of applying spending cuts – imposed on most normal people as the economy shrinks.

Instead, they are supplementing their Council Tax income by ramping up a wide range of fees and charges, of which parking fees are but one part.

Nor is it the case that Councils have any other concerns other than lining their pockets, as The Failygraph rightly puts it. The economic drag of unreasonable and excessive fees is of no concern to them, as the latest report of economic damage demonstrates.

Even though we have Council elections on 3 May, however, no relief will be afforded. There is rarely any difference in attitudes between Councils of different political hues. Their avarice overcomes any difference in political dogma, presenting voters with no real choice. The political classes, as they have become, are united in their greed.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

They keep on charging

click to read full story
Skulking behind its paywall, the Sunday Times today catches up with this blog, running a story, running a story on the illegality, a story which we ran in September last year, and Booker ran later the same month.

Better late than never, we might observe, as the piece author, Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, tells us that "Britains bailiffs are charging council taxpayers hundreds of pounds in unlawful and fabricated fees for unpaid fined and bills". He adds: "small debts are inflated into huge sums with the illegal charges the impose".

The paper's informant is that vile creature John boast, who was outed in the "Exposure" television documentary last year, perpetrating exactly the illegal practice, about which. we have complained.

Boast, having been fired from Rossendales after the TV documentary, is alleging that "unlawful and excessive fees are rife". He goes on to say, "Most people do not understand the fees or how to complain and that is being utterly abused", then telling us: "I do not believe most of these charges could be justified in the courts".

Interestingly, the Ungoed-Thomas then cites a case familiar to us - the battle between Peter Troy and Equita, which he finally won when the bailiff company backed off from a court case and "waived" their fees.

This turns out to be a standard ploy adopted by these thieves, one which enables them to evade police attention. As I found out, when the slime are challenged robustly, they invariably back off.

Less robust was Tim Ellis in another case cited by Ungoed-Thomas, who was dunned by the JBW Group for £834.44 for an unpaid congestion charge, with the threat of another £300 if he refused to pay. Ellis paid up, but is now challenging the costs.

A major part of the problem here is that people do pay up, when they don't need to. This is quite understandable when the bailiffs clamp a car, or tow it away, but too many people cough up merely on the back of threatening letters, which have no legal standing at all. But the biggest part of the problem is the local authorities who commission these thieves, knowing their activities are illegal yet doing absolutely nothing about it.

The behaviour of local authorities – and the police – in this context has completely changed my attitude to the law. "The law is the law and must be obeyed", is the classic mantra, but the reality is that the law is that which the authorities decide to enforce, and that which they decide to obey.

Since the authorities regard compliance as optional, we see no reason why we should not treat the law in exactly the same way. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say.

Anyhow, we understand that the Sunday Times may return to this subject, and it will be interesting to see whether Ungoed-Thomas gets any further than we did. But, with a billion-pound industry at stake, it is going to take more than even a few articles in this august newspaper to achieve anything.

When crime pays so handsomely, and the police sit on their hands, the perpetrators are not going to give it up easily. They will keep on charging, as long as people are prepared to pay..


Monday, 2 April 2012

The burdenless burden

Local authorities – alongside government in general – seem to be able to work to a different economic model from the rest of us. They can charge for "services", such as public transport, which they then don't supply, or for which they make extremely poor provision, having siphoned off the funds for other enterprises.

Having thus milked the accounts, they can then charge even more money to, on the promise that the money will be used to "improve" the services that they should have already been supplying but have not.

That is the basis of Labour's Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), which was introduced under the Transport Act 2000, about which the Daily Wail is currently hyperventilating.

This is because the fees under the scheme became payable in Nottingham yesterday, the only council so far to have taken up the scheme, where drivers may be forced to pay £288 a year just to park at work, although the charge is levied on the employer.

The council itself claims that it well be using the revenue to support the improvement of public transport facilities, and that the money will be ring fenced. But you just know that the amount of money from the general fund will be thus reduced.

In effect, therefore, this is just another cash grab by a local authority. The only surprising thing is that other local authorities have not woken up to this money-making scheme, delivered to them on a plate by the last Labour administration.

So much, incidentally, for the Tories promising to end the war on the motorist. There has been no sign of the coalition administration ending this tax. In fact, in its January 2011 Transport White Paper, and again in December 2001, in response to the "Red Tape Challenge", the administration committed to keeping the scheme.

In the insulting way that they do, however, they have simply told us that they will "require any future schemes to demonstrate that they have properly and effectively consulted local businesses, have addressed any proper concerns raised and secured support from the local business community".

This, they say, "will make sure that future schemes will not impose a burden on business". You just can't deal that – the government is imposing a burden on business but will ensure that this burden will not impose a burden.

And that is the way modern government works these days. Black is white, down is up, darkness is light and burdens do not impose a burden. And they wonder why West Bradford voted for George Galloway?