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On the road to ruin 
 Irish Examiner - News From Ireland - 31, January, 2001

GERARD MURPHY is 35 years old, married, with two children, aged six and three. Born and raised in Cork city, he comes from a family with a long and proud tradition of self employment.

“We were always taught to get out there, earn our own living, and not be beholden to anybody,” he says.

Gerard got his PSV licence in 1988 and a year later bought his taxi plate for a staggering sum. He prefers not to be specific, but says he could have bought a house easily for what he paid.

“It was an investment for the future. At that time, with your taxi plate, you had an assured job as long as you worked hard and when you wanted to retire you could sell it for a lump sum and that was your pension. It wasn’t easy borrowing and repaying, but it had to be done. I didn’t buy it with the hope that it would increase in value because if I’d done that I would have sold it long ago. I bought myself a job. If I’d bought the house instead, it would be worth £120,000 to £150,000 today, while my taxi plate is valueless.
“That’s what deregulation has done for me and I can hardly bear to think about it. It’s like a bereavement really. You know and believe in a way of life, and then it’s suddenly snatched away from you on a political whim and you’re left with nothing. I’ve got a wife and two small children and a mortgage like anybody else and how am I going to manage? I was proud of doing a good job well. Now I can’t even make ends meet. I tell you, there are times when I wish I’d emigrated. But I wanted to stay and work in my own country.”

Damien Kerrick of Galway agrees. Thirty years old, he is also married with two children — one three and a half, the other just six weeks old.

“I bought my taxi plate just 15 months ago and I paid £75,000 for it. It’s not so much that it’s worthless now that makes me despair, but my inability to repay the money I borrowed. I bought it in good faith, intending to work my hardest, pay off my debts and make a reasonable life for my family. Now my credit rating has dropped to zero through no fault of mine.”

There were very good reasons for regulating taxi licences in the first place, says Gerard. One of the most important was to guard against issuing plates to part timers who would only operate at weekends or other peak times. Then, when a taxi was needed urgently, say to get to an airport or hospital in the early hours of Wednesday, you couldn’t get one.

“You get part time drivers who only work when it suits them and not when they’re needed. But because there are so many new taxis around, the original full timers can’t make ends meet and find themselves having to take up part time work elsewhere to cover their costs. And that again means they can’t provide a full service year round, clock round.

“They tried deregulating taxis in Edinburgh and found that while there were lots on a Saturday night, not a single one could be found on Monday morning.”

Mary Harney, he reminds me, was all for deregulation, “yet a month earlier she put in a price control order on below cost selling, to prevent big supermarkets driving the small local shops out of business. And then they do something like this”.

Surely, though, dozens of taxis outside clubs on Saturday nights are a good thing? Gerard doesn’t agree.

“Taxis are designed to support a public transport system, not be the public transport system. If you had a taxi strike in New York, it would be ineffective because commuters would use the subway or the buses. Look at how Cork has grown and look at our public transport system. How many new bus routes have been introduced? Hardly any. Do they run late? Of course not.”

He gives full credit to places like Washington Street in Cork which has introduced late night buses for its young customers.

“You can fit 56 people in a bus. The average in a taxi is two. That’s 28 taxis milling around in the street with all the attendant fumes, traffic problems, environmental damage and fuel usage, compared to just one bus. We should have a decent integrated public transport system, incorporating buses and trains, with the taxis there as back up when needed.”

The people of Galway, says Damien, were happy with the provision as it was.

“90% of us were in radio cab companies and provided a good service. You’d call for a taxi and get one inside 10 minutes. Even in the worst scenario — say a pouring wet Saturday night in Eyre Square after the pubs shut — you’d never have to wait longer than half an hour. Before deregulation, we had 148 taxis in the city. The majority of those had both an owner and a driver. But now the drivers have applied for their own plates. The number has almost doubled. There’s still only 41 taxi rank spaces in town and the city is now saturated with taxis for which there was no need in the first place. If Dublin had a problem, then that was for Dublin to sort out. Applying it to the entire country wholesale was ridiculous.”

There is also every likelihood, says Gerard, of increased fares.

“We got into enough trouble when we raised our fares about 30p a year or so ago. We hadn’t had an increase in years, while all the time inflation and the cost of living were rising, but when we did put in for it, you’d think we were murderers the way the public reacted. I can understand that — nobody likes paying more for anything, even if they can see the justice in it. But I’m talking here about much larger increases.”

If there are more taxis competing for customers, he says, then none of them will be able to make a living and fares will have to go up to compensate.

Deregulation hasn’t worked wherever it’s been tried, says Gerard. Before it happened, Cork taxi drivers had asked the Corporation to double the number of licences for wheelchair accessible vehicles and issue about 30 new taxi plates.

“We’d looked at the situation and decided that what was needed. Progressive development to meet needs. But what did we get? The floodgates scenario in which nobody wins. And nobody’s going to invest £25,000 to £30,000 in a wheelchair accessible vehicle now, are they? It’s not worth it.”

He finds it hard not to be angry at Minister Bobby Molloy.

“One minute you’re in a job you’ve always worked hard at and made a living in, the next you’re in the gutter. We all struggled and bought our taxi plates within the system that the State had created and then overnight the asset was eliminated. How can anyone do that? It makes you lose your trust in human beings.”

Damien says the old system exercised a valuable control in the vetting of those wishing to become taxi drivers.

“The high cost and the knowledge that they would be checked out rigorously dissuaded anyone from applying who wasn’t going to give it his best effort. Now anyone can apply, whether they intend to make it their life’s work, as we did, or just want a part time source of additional income.” The future looks bleak for both.

“What have we done wrong? We’re hard working Irishmen, with wives, mortgages and young families. We struggled hard to get where we are. We’re the kind of people the Government is always saying it needed — entrepreneurs. A few years ago the Government was encouraging them to re mortgage their homes, buy taxi plates and set up in business. Now Bobby Molloy has swept it all away. How can he do that?”

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