Above a diner and accessible only via a back door off a dingy alley stands a small and unremarkable office.
To the untrained eye, it is the home of a local minicab firm, Wednesfield Cars, whose manager is adamant that his is the only business operating there.
Wolverhampton council knows better. It has licensed 13 competing taxi companies to run their operations from the very same office.
In the past three years, Wolverhampton has become the go-to local authority for thousands of drivers from all corners of England in search of a minicab licence. In 2015, it issued 852; this year, 9,388. The same period saw the number of minicab companies licensed to operate in the city climb from 12 to 100.
In total, 58 of those companies are listed as operating from one of four Wolverhampton addresses. When The Times visited, there was no trace of 52 of them.
The council has not merely licensed dozens of hard-to-spot firms at those locations. It has also issued licences to thousands of drivers who work in other English towns for companies with exactly the same business names as the Wolverhampton operators. Those firms run visible minicab operations in places including Birmingham, Manchester, Stockport, Stoke-on-Trent, Derby, Mansfield, Nottingham, Cambridge, Windsor & Maidenhead and Swale, in Kent.
One of the four addresses has for the past few years been the operations hub for a genuine local company called ABC Cars and its sister ABC Countdown Cars. According to the council, an additional 17 minicab firms operate at the same place. Not so, says Richard Halsall, ABC’s manager, who said he had never heard of any of them.
Licensing experts have suggested an explanation. Under the Deregulation Act 2015, minicab companies operating anywhere are entitled to subcontract work to other firms, with one proviso.
If a minicab firm in Manchester wants to use drivers and vehicles licensed by Wolverhampton, the pre-booked work they are given must be sub-contracted to the firm by a Wolverhampton minicab operator. So it would be convenient for the Manchester firm to be able to show that all the jobs it gives its Wolverhampton drivers were sub-contracted by its sister firm, of the same name, in the West Midlands city.
If that sister operator has no employees and runs no vehicles, the law does not seem to care. This loophole has been embraced by Wolverhampton council, whose “efficient” approach to licensing has proved highly lucrative. Its income from taxi and minicab licences rose from £263,000 in 2014-15 to £2.2 million in 2017-18.
Last night the council defended its conduct, insisting that it applied stringent standards to drivers it licenses and claiming that its popularity was due to swift and efficient online applications.
The authority’s licensing committee chairman, Alan Bolshaw, said its approach complied with relevant legislation and, by embracing digitalisation, was far more advanced that the “very traditional and rigid licensing practices” used by other local authorities.
To suggest that a minicab operator needed to have employees, drivers and vehicles in the area where it was based was a concept that belonged, he said, to the days of “long-winded and outdated processes”.
The 52 minicab operators that did not appear to exist at the four addresses were entirely legitimate. Each was, he said, represented at its registered operating base by a digital recording system, in the form of a box. “Why are there so many vehicles and drivers on the roads licensed by Wolverhampton council? Because we have the best licensing system in the UK,” he boasted.
Other councils would beg to disagree, particularly those hit by a recent influx of Wolverhampton-licensed minicab drivers and cars. Many, as was the case with the earlier surge in Rossendale-plated vehicles, have voiced safeguarding concerns.
Licensing officers in Southampton were contacted by Hampshire police investigating the alleged rape of a female passenger by a local driver. The council did not have him on its books and it turned out that he had been licensed by Wolverhampton.
In Rotherham, the town hit by a mass sex-grooming scandal in which minicab drivers were implicated, more than a dozen men, including five refused licences by the council for reasons including safeguarding concerns, have applied for Wolverhampton licences.
Birmingham councillors claim that Wolverhampton is “more lenient” than its neighbours. A Coventry licensing committee member complained that “treating taxi licensing as a cash cow undermines public safety”. The West Midlands authority was handing out minicab licences “like sweeties”.
Nottingham’s chief licensing officer, Richard Antcliff, accused Wolverhampton of exploiting a “farcical loophole” in the regulations. “Somewhere along the line, Wolverhampton has lost its moral compass,” he said.
The driver arrested in Southampton had no convictions and lost his licence immediately, Mr Bolshaw said. Wolverhampton had “worked extensively” with Rotherham council and the National Crime Agency “to ensure any drivers implicated in child exploitation do not gain Wolverhampton licences”.