TfL just told Uber it wasn’t a fit and proper company to provide cabs in London. Here’s why that’s a good thing

A tale of two cabbies: Uber and a black cab. Image: Getty.

I’ve never been an enthusiast for the ride-sharing-company/disruptive tech giant/let’s-be-honest-it’s-just-a-minicab-firm-with-an-app Uber.  I’d love to pretend there was a highly principled reason for this: that it treats its drivers appallingly, that it won’t take responsibility for those drivers’ actions, even that it’s making life intolerably hard for London’s army of hard-working black cabbies, who always know the way, are always ready with a cheeky smile, and are never sexist or racist or over-priced or nothing.

But the truth is, I’ve just had rotten luck getting cabs out of Uber when I needed them. The entire selling point of Uber was that it was cheap and convenient. When you’ve not found it to be either, particularly, it’s difficult to have any goodwill towards a company which is, let’s be honest about this, completely bloody appalling in every other sense.

At any rate, it’s difficult to for me to work up any rage in response to Transport for London’s announcement that it has ruled that Uber London Ltd is “not fit a proper to hold a private hire operator licence”, effectively banning it from the streets of the capital. Meh. Good, probably.

The ban won’t happen immediately: the licence runs out on 30 September, and anyway the company has 21 days from now to appeal, during which time it can keep running cabs. But after Friday 13 October, should the appeal fail – and should Uber do nothing to change TfL’s mind on this – it’s game over.

Where did Uber go wrong? The TfL statement points to four factors:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.

In other words, when Uber drivers did terrible things – and let’s be honest, we’ve all heard the stories – Uber had a tendency to shrug and say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.”

  • Its approach to how medical certificates are obtained.
  • Its approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained.

Translation: Uber was not doing enough to show it was doing thorough background checks on its drivers.

  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London – software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

This reads a lot like Uber was not only being unhelpful to the authorities, but was actively obstructing them. The impression you get is that the firm saw its relationship with TfL as entirely one-way: we deliver cabs, you say thank you. That’s all very well for 4,000 word manifestos posted on Medium by the sort of tech bro who read Ayn Rand at too formative an age, it isn’t actually a workable transport policy for the real world.


There’s a common subtext to all four of these things: Uber was not taking TfL seriously as a regulator. When asked to improve, it fobbed TfL off, on the assumption that TfL would blink first. This assumption has just turned out to be catastrophically, hilariously wrong.

There will be many people will be angered by today’s decision. Some – including many on the left, who’d normally show more concern about zero hours contracts and poor workers rights – complaining that TfL has just made travel more expensive for Londoners. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat has even compared the decision to an attempt by Sadiq Khan to “switch off the internet”, as fine as example of Cleverly’s Law as you’re likely to spot in the wild today.

Such arguments are, of course, nonsense, for two reasons. One is, basically, regulators gonna regulate. TfL is supposed to ensure the safety of taxi passengers: Uber wasn’t cooperating, so no more Uber. TfL is quite literally doing its job.

The other reason this decision is a good thing is that it looks suspiciously like a negotiating tactic. Today’s decision won’t immediately change anything for the average Uber-user. The firm has a chance to appeal – and that appeal is vastly more likely to be successful if the firm actually addresses some of the reasons why it lost its licence.

My suspicion is this was decision was never intended to actually ban Uber from the streets of London. Rather, it’s an attempt to show the company that TfL can and will regulate it out of existence, if it doesn’t start doing better. Using its regulatory muscle to improve standards is exactly how a public authority should treat misbehaving private companies.

So: Uber likely can keep operating in London, well beyond mid-October. All it needs to do is improve its system of background checks, and start taking passenger safety seriously. Easy. Your move, lads.

You can hear me discuss this story with Stephen Bush on our latest podcast.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.