Uber in "sharing economy" standoff with UK government

Uber is in a standoff with the government over whether or not it is part of the sharing economy in the UK, Techworld can reveal.

Travis Kalanick's San Francisco-headquartered company has expressed an interest in joining the newly-created, government-backed Sharing Economy UK (SEUK) trade body but there are a number of obstacles that need to be overcome beforehand.

Jo Bertram, general manager for the UK, Ireland and the Nordics at Uber, told Techworld that Uber is in discussions as to whether or not it should join SEUK, adding that there has been some confusion over whether or not the taxi-hailing company can be classed as a sharing economy firm in the UK.

SEUK was set up by Love Home Swap CEO Debbie Wosskow after she carried out an independent review into the sharing economy for government to see how the UK can best take advantage of the emerging sector.

One of the recommendations that came out of the report was that the UK should create a trade body to support the sharing economy. This led to the formation of SEUK, which was launched on 6 March with 21 founding member companies, including well known names like Airbnb and Zipcar, but not Uber.

The term "sharing economy" is yet to make its way into the Oxford English dictionary but Investopedia defines it as: "An economic model in which individuals are able to borrow or rent assets owned by someone else. The sharing economy model is most likely to be used when the price of a particular asset is high and the asset is not fully utilised all the time."

Bertram said Uber definitely considers itself to be a sharing economy company when one looks at the firm's global operations but its status is slightly more complicated in the UK because the taxi-hailing company actually operates as a private hire vehicle dispatcher, and as such, is using a traditional business model.

A spokesperson for SEUK said: "Uber weren't included in Debbie's original report for that reason."

The fact that Uber, a company perceived by many as the leading sharing economy company operating in the UK, was excluded from consultations surrounding the government-commissioned report could raise eyebrows.

Bertram said: "We weren't able to engage and we weren't recognised as being part of the sharing economy here in the UK."

To complicate matters further, the Uber executive said she isn't even sure she wants Uber to be part of SEUK.

"The government's not willing to address the issues that are relevant to us so as such we're not keen to join the trade association at this stage but we will continue re-evaluating."

Bertram did not elaborate on the "issues" Uber faces but the company has come under fire from black cab drivers.

When asked if Uber is part of the sharing economy, Bertram said: "It depends how you define it. Certainly globally we definitely are. Here in the UK we operate a fully licensed service which, depending on your definition of the sharing economy, may be more or less sharing. It's less sharing in that you need a professional license but if you're talking about economic ownership of assets and how you share and the better utilisation of stuff [then it is]."

She concluded: "We would definitely like to be part of the debate of the sharing economy and how to make that work in the UK."

The full list of companies that signed up to be part of the initial Sharing Economy UK cohort includes: Airbnb, Appear Here, Bla Bla Car, Compare and Share, EasyCar, Echo, Hassle.com, Liftshare, Love Home Swap, Nimber, One Fine Stay, OuiShare, Task Rabbit, ZipCar. The members will be advised by: Coadec, Institute of Directors, Nesta, Osborne Clarke, PwC, Tech City and Tech UK.

Wosskow said Sharing Economy UK will consider new applicants every quarter.


Sam Shead

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