Flying taxis? We can’t even regulate the ones on our roads properly - David Behrens

April Fools’ Day is still a week away but the government appeared to have jumped the gun on Tuesday. We might, said ministers, see ‘flying taxis’ plying their trade within the next two years.

According to the boffins, these would be vertical take-off aircraft capable of getting you from Leeds to Liverpool in 26 minutes, which is quicker than HS2 would have done.

They’ve already run a four-week test from a mini airport in a car park in Coventry. And that’s only the beginning, says the Department for Transport; within 15 years these things won’t even need pilots.

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But officials admit they will have to overcome public scepticism if anything is going to take off by 2026.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, pictured during a press conference at the Convention of the North. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA WireAndy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, pictured during a press conference at the Convention of the North. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, pictured during a press conference at the Convention of the North. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

You’re telling me. This is the stuff of Gerry Anderson and The Jetsons, not a country like ours where it takes three decades just to get the buses back under public control.

And all I can say is that if we ever do have flying taxis I hope they’re not going to be licensed in the same way as regular ones – because that’s a system that truly needs bringing down to earth.

Under the present Dodge City regulations, cabbies can simply disappear over county lines to procure cheap licences and avoid awkward questions about their car’s safety or their own suitability.

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As a result, standards have slipped. In Leeds alone there were more than 700 complaints from passengers last year – many relating to inappropriate sexual advances by drivers; others from people consumed by the simple fear of death by dangerous driving.

That figure is 25 per cent up on the previous year and is replicated elsewhere. As far back as 2019 complaints against taxi drivers in central Manchester were running at more than 100 a month.

If you climb into a cab in either of those cities there’s a one-in-three chance that it has not been licensed there but in Wolverhampton, whose chief industry now appears to be turning out cabbies. More than 36,000 have come through what passes for its regulatory regime, a figure equivalent to 13 per cent of its entire population.

In fact, the council is so busy rubber-stamping applications that it has had to hire 20 new staff to keep up with demand.

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The incentive for taxi firms is clear: Wolverhampton charges around half as much as most other towns for a driver’s licence and a registration certificate for a car that might be 10 years old and barely roadworthy.

This carry-on has been legal since 2015 when the Transport Department – the same one that now thinks taxis should fly – ruled that cabbies could register outside their own towns. When this happened Wolverhampton Council, perhaps not realising it would become a magnet for every scrapheap private hire cab in the country, paid for a digital licensing system that would do away with a lot of the pesky paperwork.

But of course its officials have no way of monitoring what goes on when the drivers get back home.

That’s why the Manchester mayor Andy Burnham wants the law changed back so that cabbies can no longer drive a coach and horses right through it. Wolverhampton, he says, is taking their licensing money without taking on any of the responsibility for enforcement.

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He is not the only one wise to what’s going on. In Milton Keynes there have been so many complaints about inappropriate behaviour and offensive language from cabbies that the council has invited those who want to seize the moral high ground to display white ribbons in their windscreens.

But a voluntary gesture like that is hardly likely to deter sex pests who should never have been licensed in the first place.

In Rotherham, where they know all too well what happens when sexual exploitation goes unchecked, councillors want to introduce measures that will warn passengers when a booking with their usual firm is subcontracted to someone else. It’s the least they can do, given the complicity of taxi drivers in the ritual abuse of 1,400 of the town’s children over 15 years.

What surprises me most about all this is that in a society held together by red tape, where you can’t walk under a ladder without a health and safety form, there remain entire tracts of public policy that officials don’t want to regulate. Another is the elbow room given to broadband companies you’ve never heard of to erect dirty great poles outside your front door without so much as a please or thank you.

That’s why I don’t believe the government will get its Jetsons act together – not in two years or 20 years. Pigs will fly before the first taxi gets airborne.

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