Basildon taxi drivers reveal cost of living crisis and COVID impact

“It’s hit me massively,” said Michael West, a taxi driver of more than two decades.

Coronavirus and the successive cost of living crisis, the worst the country has seen in decades, have created a perfect storm for the taxi trade in Basildon and its surrounding communities.

And it’s not financial pressures faced by drivers. By working during the pandemic, they risked their lives.

At least six local drivers died of COVID-19, with several others suffering from long covid now unable to work, according to the Basildon Borough Hackney Carriage Association (BBHCA).

Michael West

Mr West told the LDRS he had seen a large number of colleagues leave the trade in recent years.

He said: “Along with the COVID situation and lack of work, it’s hit me big time.

“There’s no travellers, I reckon my earnings per year are down nearly 40 per cent.”

The trade has seen an overall 40 per cent loss of drivers since the pandemic began, according to the BBHCA.

Fuel costs, which have risen from £1.30 to £1.48 per litre since 2019, and a 57 per cent rise in the price of second hand vehicles, have eaten into drivers’ wages.

Through the rise of home working, the loss of local nightlife and the wider effect of the cost of living on consumers themselves, how and why people use taxi services are changing.

But those in the trade are hopeful it can bounce back, and are putting pressure on Basildon Council to improve working conditions and to make it easier to recruit new drivers.

The authority agreed new fare charges for taxi journeys last month after the BBHCA asked for them, hoping to balance the needs of the borough’s drivers struggling with rising costs of fuel, repairs and secondhand vehicles, and those of consumers also feeling the effects of the cost of living.

Trying to feed off scraps’

During the first lockdown, local private hire firm Value Cars dropped from 100 cars down to 18. 

Company director Adam Stanton said the period had been “mentally challenging”. 

He said: “A lot of the older boys who were coming up to retirement, I think they were a bit worried about the illness side of it, the health side, and naturally with lockdown our work massively dried up.”

Those that remained had to change the way they worked to cope.

“It was kind of just trying to feed off scraps and obviously our poor drivers had to suffer because of it,” he continued later.

“Extra hours here, and had to adapt their way of working for the business needs.”

Mr Stanton said that more recently the firm had managed to return to a fleet of about 90 cars.

But now it is faced with the opposite problem of having too many drivers for the amount of work available.

Value Cars raised rates during the fuel crisis in September 2021.

Mr Stanton said: “The drivers were due a rise anyway.

“Taxi driving is an expensive job to be in. The cost of either renting a car or owning your own car will be high, so it’s been really, really hard.”

He later said:  “Sometimes when times get tough, the answer isn’t always putting the price up.

“But customers don’t always see the running costs and they don’t always understand what it’s like.”

With Basildon council closing for large periods during the pandemic, when old drivers left it was difficult to replace them with younger ones, according to Mr Stanton.

With Uber or other councils such as Castle Point, drivers can get their badge without having “The Knowledge” – the test for which is infamously tough and requires them to know the area’s roads by memory.

Mr Stanton advocated for a more flexible approach from Basildon Borough Council to make it easier to hire new drivers and keep the license fees in the local borough.

We’re not a big corporate company, we can’t give discounted fares’

He said: “What you’ll find is if we were busy people don’t tend to moan about Uber as much, but when we go quiet, they panic that Uber is taking over.

“I wouldn’t know exactly the number behind it, what Uber are doing, but for sure there’s a big influence from Uber in the town.

“For us, the business, we accept that and try and concentrate on our end of the bargain, try to provide top levels of service and keep up to date with all that’s going on really, we always try to help our local community as much as possible.

“But you’ve got to ensure your drivers are earning a living.

“We’re not a big corporate company, we can’t give 50 per cent discounts on all your fares, we’ve got to try and keep our earnings ticking over.

“We’re just a small fish in a very big pond. They’re here to stay by the looks of things and we’ve just got to find a way around it really.”

Bringing flesh blood into the trade’

The BBHCA, which represents council-licensed orange-and-white hackney carriages, has also been putting pressure on the council to improve working conditions for the borough’s drivers.

During the lockdowns, drivers were only earning between 10 to 15 per cent of their pre-covid income and despite the end of restrictions this has still not returned to normal, according to the BBHCA.

Faced with the loss of drivers, the association says it wants things to change.

It requested a rise in tariffs earlier this year, including the initial charge for a journey from £2.80 to £3.20 and the introduction of a new £1 midnight tariff, which was subsequently approved by the council.

“Our dilemma was how do we attract people back into the trade to maintain a professional level of service for our customers,” BBHCA Chairman Mark Waller told the LDRS.

“Other well known companies such as Uber have exactly the same recruitment problems and have increased their tariffs accordingly.

“Therefore, we are interested in bringing flesh blood into the trade to restore the status quo, simultaneously reducing the percentage loss of taxis and private hire vehicles operating in the Basildon borough.”

According to Mr Waller, competition within the transport industry is “fierce.”

Jobs with regular PAYE such as courier or delivery drivers, and a national recruitment drive for HGV drivers, have attracted former and potential future workers away from the trade.

Uber, too, provides competition. Being close to London, the private hire juggernaut often operates in and around the borough.

What some customers might not know is that if Ubers operate in the same way as hackney carriages, flagged down by a customer rather than being pre-booked, the vehicle’s insurance is invalid.

This means customers may find it difficult to get compensation if an accident occurs.

A spokesperson for Basildon Borough Council said in a statement: “Any private hire vehicle must be pre-booked in order to carry passengers – they cannot be hailed on the street or ply for hire from a Hackney Carriage rank. 

“Failing to abide by these rules will mean that the vehicle insurance is invalidated.”

What the future holds

The national Government this week announced the lifting of the final few coronavirus restrictions.

But with the cost of living showing no signs of slowing, and the ever-present risk of a new variant or harsh winter period returning, the future is far from certain for the trade.

Insiders, however, seem set on promoting the trade and attracting new drivers despite the hardship of years past and years to come.

Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter