On Monday 16th July, Greater London Authority Member David Kurten hosted a strictly non-political event at City Hall entitled ‘The Knowledge: What’s Its Future?’
Kurten, a passionate supporter of the black cab trade, opened with a speech in front of an audience of concerned cabbies and trade figures. He outlined the bleak circumstances that confront the much valued and respected mandatory test for black cab drivers. He was followed by four guest speakers who provided expert insight into the extent of the issues.
In his opening presentation, the GLA representative highlighted a 78% drop in new drivers studying for the knowledge. Applications are now in the low hundreds, down from over 3,000 at some points in time. Combined with the fact that 60% of London black cab drivers are now over the age of 50 a perfect storm appears to be on the horizon. The number of qualified cabbies on London’s roads has also dropped by 2,000 in the last 8 years as licences have been allowed to lapse.
A severe shortage of drivers could seriously hamper the trade’s ability to compete and render it unable to service the level of demand in the market. The decline in London cab drivers from around 25,000 in 2010 to nearer 23,000 in 2018 is in stark contrast to their private hire rivals who have virtually doubled their numbers in a similar time frame. In previous years, word of mouth has fuelled applications for the test, with ambitious cabbies attracted by, amongst other points, the good earning potential and flexible working conditions offered by driving a Black Taxi in the Capital for a living.
Guest speaker Grant Davis, Chair of the London Cab Drivers Club, laid the blame for the fall in numbers squarely at Transport for London’s door. He underlined the impact of their decision to license Uber for impacting the potential earnings of a cab driver and making the profession less attractive to would-be applicants. He also criticised the trade’s largest union, the LTDA, for failing to hold them to account, and highlighted the apparent apathy amongst many within the trade to its plight. Regrettably, the industry regulator declined to attend the event and there was no representative from the LTDA.
The Death of The Knowledge
Dean Warrington, from the WizAnn Knowledge School, used the platform to express his fears, based upon his very relevant experience. He believes that in under two years, the Knowledge will no longer be viable. Many schools have already closed and those that remain will be unable to continue.
He highlighted redlining – the practice of moving drivers back in the process if they fail at an appearance – as being detrimental to applicant numbers. He explained that redlining was only introduced 18 years ago in order to stem the number of drivers applying and passing the Knowledge, as levels were felt to be too high. He estimated the removal of red lining might reduce the average process to 12-18 months. Application, exam and licensing costs were also pointed out as being off putting to potential students.
What can be done to Save the Knowledge?
Speaking at the event, industry expert and a former cabbie himself Dr Mike Galvin – who wrote his doctorate on the topic of, “Identity & Management of the Cab Industry”, communicated to the audience just how much the Knowledge means to those who pass it. “It holds huge social standing and is a gateway to many working class people to a good living. With the Knowledge meaning so much to cab drivers, they of course want to preserve it. TfL are mandated to keep it. So there is a consensus to keep it.”
Dr Mike spoke of his sympathy for the trade as severe congestion is making cabs expensive and that other decisions have gone against it. However, speaking frankly, he expressed the opinion that the industry faced a business problem, “Bashing the regulator is not the way forward. It needs a business solution. It is not TfL’s role to promote the knowledge. Yes, TfL have performed poorly and should be held to account, but focus should be on improving the trade’s own performance.”
Courtney Connell, of the Knowledge 4 You Academy, gave a passionate contribution in which he explained how cabbies are part of the fabric of London. However, he feels that the cost of the process is very hard to bear and that more innovative ways of helping drivers fund their training need to be introduced.
Also speaking from the floor, Sean Paul Day of the Taxi App and London Taxi Radio, said that driver numbers need to stay at a certain level to maintain critical mass. He believes that the lack of applications is due to the loss of the street hail as a unique selling point to potential cabbies. As Uber drivers are effectively able to ply for hire, the added benefit of passing the Knowledge qualification is greatly minimised and the attractiveness of 4 years study is much reduced. Tackling this issue with the powers that be should be the trade’s primary focus in his opinion.
All suggestions from the audience were being noted and David Kurten promised to compose a letter of recommendations to send to the Mayor of London.
- Remove redlining, that punish failure and move applicants back in the process
- A trade funding scheme to support drivers during the education process
- Explore whether the Knowledge can become eligible for a student loan or an apprenticeship scheme
- Promotion of the Knowledge at job centres
- TfL should look to reduce overheads for cabbies
- Training for examiners to assist applicants with learning disabilities
- Encouragement of drivers and service providers to the trade to financially back London Taxi PR’s recruitment campaigns
London Taxi PR have started a display advertising campaign featuring former students, from diverse backgrounds, that have successfully passed the Knowledge. It’s hoped that the positive tagline “I did it, so can you” will encourage would-be applicants to believe that passing is a realistic possibility despite the strenuous examination process. The two cabbie founders of London Taxi PR, Lee and Gary, would implore anyone passionate about the trade to get behind the campaign and help supporting it financially by visiting their website and donating.
It’s clear that the trade is facing a potential crisis that could see driver numbers plummet. Many in the room stated the need for greater collaboration amongst trade bodies, in order to form a unified approach. At Plan, we very much hope that is the case and will be willing to support any initiatives aimed at invigorating the Knowledge applicant numbers such as London Taxi PR’s campaign.
Main photo credit: Six Mile Steve