Twenty years ago this month I started working for the Public Carriage Office (PCO). I hadn’t wanted the job: at the same time as my interview for the PCO, Robin Baird-Smith of the Continuum Publishing Group interviewed me for a position there. That was the job I really wanted. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it.
I probably did badly at the interview, but to this day I associate the failure with one question that Baird-Smith asked me: did I like (the then) Cardinal Ratzinger? I did, and told him so. Afterwards, I reckoned that in terms of working for Continuum saying so was a mistake as Continuum was more in the liberal Catholic line. Why would they hire anyone of a more traditionalist bent? Like I say, I probably failed the interview for other reasons, but that has always stuck with me.
The funny thing is that because I didn’t want the Public Carriage Office job, I was very free with my answers there, as well. I was asked if I approved of positive discrimination. Absolutely not, I said, it’s just another form of discrimination. When I thought about that answer afterwards, I was very happy: they’ll never hire me, now, I thought, I just need Continuum to come through and everything will be perfect.
The good Lord had other plans, however, and in the middle of June 2001 (I think my start date was either the 13th or 18th, I can’t remember which), I started at the PCO.
The Public Carriage Office was founded in 1850s to oversee the regulation and licensing of the taxi (black cab) trade in London. It used to be part of the Metropolitan Police. When Transport for London (TfL) was founded in 2000 it took over control of the PCO*.
Two years earlier, the Labour government had passed the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act, which allowed for the licensing of minicabs (or private hire vehicles, to give them their ‘proper’ name), minicab drivers and operators. As a result, the minicab, or Private Hire, side of the PCO was rapidly expanding – hence my interview. Specifically, I was applying to join the Private Hire Operator licensing team.
In 2001, the PCO was based at 15 Penton Street near the Angel, Islington. As it was being refurbished, the PHV teams spent most of the summer working in a former courthouse in Clerkenwell.
The summer of 2001 was a happy time. I joined a team full of characters with an easy going manager in charge and a lot of commitment to the cause. I did well at the PCO with my managers. My first one, D., was a very relaxed guy. I didn’t really have much in common with him but that didn’t matter when he was such an open hearted person. My second manager, P., was a more serious minded man but was always open to conversation and discussion. The PHV (business) licensing team was split in two and the overall manager was KR. She was completely dedicated to her work and her staff. I would have taken a bullet for her. Never before or since have I known a leader as kind or selfless as she. When P. moved on in c.2007, I successfully applied for his job. He and D. were great models to have as I became a manager in their stead. I’m sure I did not do as well as they, but that is not for me to say. The final judgement there, lies with the two or three people who I had underneath me at any given time.
Here is the courthouse we worked in:
It has been converted into a youth hostel now. As you can see from the photograph (for which, thank you Google Maps), guests enter it through the main door. We had to use the side door on Great Percy Street (to the left).
Despite all the teams being in their own offices, we regularly walked through the building on one mission or another and so were able to say hello and have a chat to others. Staff meetings were held in the actual courtroom. I can remember at least one occasion when the head of the PHV teams sat in the judge’s chair! Although I don’t specifically recall it, I’m sure people also sat in the dock. What about the cells? We used those as well – to store files.
As I mentioned above, my team licensed the private hire businesses. There were two forms that they – the minicab owners – had to fill out: a general application form called the PHV/101 and a personal declaration form called the PHV/103. They were very simple documents and easy to process. I say ‘simple’ – yes, for us; many people in the private hire trade, however, were not from Britain and so their command of English was not perfect. For them, the forms were more challenging. Ringing them to query information that they had provided (or not, as the case may be) was a regular part of the job.
The most ‘difficult’ part of the job was the computer system we used to record the information on the forms. It was called TAPITS. I’ve long since forgotten what that stands for. We called it Crapits. It was simple but very user unfriendly. We longed for it to be replaced. Years later, it was – by an even worse system, the name of which I have happily banished from my memory.
In 2001, minicab owners had a limited amount of time in which to send their applications in and get licensed. As a result, we had, for the first and only time during my first stint at the PCO, to process a certain number of applications every day. As they were straight forward, this wasn’t hard. In consequence, I look back at the summer of 2001 and can dwell on the fun things that happened. For example, the fact that my phone number was so similar to the radio station Heart FM that people kept ringing me up to make song requests. For a while, I simply told them they had rung the wrong number. Then, I got bored, and spent five minutes trying to persuade a rock and roll fan to ask for a piece of music by Beethoven instead. Then there was the night we went to the pub to watcWh England play Germany. Incredibly, we won 5-1.
One day in 2001, the world changed. On 11th September, somewhere after three in the afternoon, S., a member of the tech support team, came in to our office and told us that an aeroplane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. I thought he was making a joke, and laughed incredulously. But no, it had really happened. By the time I got home, two aeroplanes had crashed into the WTC. I watched with millions of others as the twin towers crashed to the ground. Another aeroplane struck the Pentagon and one crashed into a field when the passengers heroically fought back against the terrorists. In the days after, aeroplanes all over the world were grounded. It was surreal looking up in the sky and not seeing any aircraft there.
*Around 2009, the PCO changed its name to Taxi Private Hire. I’ll keep calling it the PCO until I come to that period.