Bills, badges and blights

Cabbies refer to their authorisation to ply for hire as their ‘Bill and Badge’. The badge is pretty self-evident as it hangs around their necks. Their bill or paper licence is thought to refer to the ‘bill of health’, which is very pertinent in today’s pandemic.

Another nod to the health of Londoners is that it was once supposedly illegal for people to hail a cab while suffering from the bubonic plague. This is still partly true, as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act of 1984 requires a person suffering from a notifiable disease to inform the cab driver, who may then decide whether to ferry the passenger. If he does so, he is then required to notify the authorities and disinfect the cab before taking another fare.

More drivers than vehicles

Since Oliver Cromwell first licensed cabbies there has always been more drivers than available vehicles, in recent times some cabs were ‘doubled-up’ which allowed the cabbies to pay a reduced rent. In the past, all vehicles and the horses were owned by the proprietor who rented them out to many drivers. Today (much like the author) many badges have been retained but not used to ply for hire.

As the only restriction to becoming a London cabbie, irrespective of the licenses in issue at the time has been The Knowledge, therefore there has always been an excess of drivers. Last year, for example, there was 20,136 licensed cabs and 23,159 cabbies.

In the past, in London, the gulf between drivers and vehicles was even greater. For instance, in 1986 there were 14,000 licensed cabs and 19,000 licensed drivers while by 1996 there were 17,000 licensed cabs and 22,000 licensed drivers.

Recent records show the disparity has reduced and averages in the region of about 10 per cent more drivers than available cabs.

Available cabs plummet

But since the coronavirus pandemic, the number of taxis licensed in the capital has plummeted from 18,900 on 7 June to 15,000 on 8 November according to Transport for London.

The London Taxi Drivers Association believe that only 20 per cent of cabbies are plying for hire, which equates to about 4,500, while rental firm, Sherbet London, has hired a car park to help store 400 unoccupied cabs, representing two-thirds of its fleet, its chief executive Asher Moses has estimated 2,000 taxis are standing in fields at the moment, so they are exempt from insurance and road tax.

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