A road is a road - and it's not for free

Taxi drivers' hopes of pulling rank over minicabs come to nothing
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When is a public highway not a public highway? When it is a road. The conclusion comes from the semantic gymnastics of Section 75 of the Public Health Act (1925), the Roads Act (1988), three High Court judges and the Department of Transport.

The answer to the riddle will come as shock to licensed taxi drivers, who were expecting a large boost to their business in shopping centre and railway station car parks, and no doubt will be the subject of many conversations with their passengers in the next few weeks.

The cabbies were hoping that a decision by the High Court on 29 November in the case of Clarke v Kato would redefine privately owned shopping centre and railway station car parks as "public highways" allowing them to "ply for trade" - pick up passengers - without having to pay a fee for the privilege of waiting in a designated taxi rank.

In addition, the cabbies were hoping that minicabs would be prevented from waiting in the same ranks (for which they also have to pay a fee to the car park owners) because the minicabs are prevented by their unlicensed status from plying for trade on anything that is defined as a public highway.

An article in the Cab Driver newspaper claimed that the decision "means that minicabs can no longer wait in the car parks of shops, large shopping centres or places of public entertainment". It was a decision "which the UK licensed taxi trade could hardly of [sic] dreamed about".

Sadly for the cabbies, it is not to be. Instead, the ruling defined a private car park that had frequent pedestrian traffic across it as a "road" for the purposes of the Roads Act 1988. This meant, among other things, that motor insurance policies were valid.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport explained that roads and public highways are very different creatures.

"A road is simply a way of getting from A to B, and can be public or privately owned," she said. "A public highway, on the other hand, is one that is maintained at public expense and to which there is general access."

She added that the definition also applied to cars that did not display a road tax disc: in a car park or other private road no tax disc is required; however, the lack of a displayed tax disc on a public highway results in a fine. The question of whether motor insurance was valid on such "roads" had now been cleared up, she said.

Cabbies, who have been campaigning against the high fees levied on them by privatised managements of railway stations to stand in their taxi ranks, and against the equal status of private minicabs on those ranks, said they would continue to press for free access to what they saw as "public road". "I don't pay thousands of pounds to buy and run my black cab to the Public Carriage Office's standards so that I can be undercut by minicabs and charged yet more money by car park owners," said one cabbie.

At least one large minicab firm was monitoring developments. "It would appear this was yet another attempt by the licensed cab trade to push us out of bona fide business, and I'm glad to learn that the High Court decision is not going to affect us in the way they hoped," said the firm's owner.