As an entrepreneur, I believe that safe, fair competition is ultimately good for the consumer, and likely to expand the market in which it occurs - to the benefit of all. Disruptive new entrants can be a force for good, forcing others to up their game and creating a better overall experience. However, for that to happen a level regulatory playing field, where everyone knows where they stand, is essential.
The entry into the market of Uber - the multinational minicab firm - has put the cat among the pigeons but not in a good way. Uber stands accused of unfair competition across a range of different issues, and if you believe the taxi and private hire industry, Transport for London is letting them get away with it. Tax avoidance, operating unlicensed, failure to verify that their drivers are insured and anti-social behaviour by their drivers are among the list of grievances.
TfL As A Regulator
Anyone living in London will have been hard put to miss the recent drama that this has caused between TfL and the Taxi and private hire trade. Taxis have been demonstrating in the streets - most recently back in April, where Oxford Street was brought to a halt. The Licensed Private Hire Car Association, the trade body for the minicabs, last year voted that it had no confidence in TfL's ability to act as a regulator.
These concerns are mirrored among our political class. Margaret Hodge MP, then the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, wrote to the Mayor last year suggesting that TfL is facilitating tax avoidance by failing to act on Uber's tax structures which allow them to divert their profits abroad. In a report in November last year, the Greater London Assembly Transport Committee noted drily that "Mass demonstrations on the street and votes of no confidence from trade organisations are not generally indicators of a healthy relationship between industries and their regulators."
The Committee raised serious questions around the relationship between TfL and the industry it regulates - and its ability to operate effectively as a regulator. Subsequent correspondence between the Committee and TfL shows ongoing concern about the circumstances in which a licence was granted to Uber, and the enforcement of its conditions.
It is very clear that something is going wrong in London. The black cab is an iconic London institution, famous the world over. The cabbies are clear that Uber is unfairly damaging their market - and feel so strongly about it that they are prepared to put their livelihood on the line.
Let's Update A Regulatory System That Even Predates Google
The current regulatory system was created in 1998, and has supported the growth of a thriving taxi and minicab market now worth nearly £3bn annually. While they still seem broadly fit-for-purpose, TfL as a responsible regulator should be prepared to update the rules to meet the needs of the modern age. Bear in mind, Google was founded in 1998, Uber in 2009. When updating, it should act in an open and transparent way, without conceding an unfair competitive advantage to any one operator.
Having set regulatory expectations, TfL should be prepared to act decisively to enforce them, without fear or favour. The relative size or popularity of a particular operator should not give them any special treatment. I am in no position to comment on the allegations aimed at Uber - but TfL needs to grasp the nettle. Something that started as a dispute around fair competition appears to be spiralling into a battle for the legitimacy of the system and its regulator. TfL needs urgently to act, and be seen to do so.