OPINION: No mercy for the self-employed – a car finance disaster

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

Before lockdown, I drove a lot. Pubs, weddings, venues – life as a full-time musician requires you to pop up out of thin air for clients in far reaches of the country. It’s a magic trick, but it requires preparation. Most importantly, you need a car. A car to fill with instruments, speakers, bags of cables, two meals, an overnight bag, and space for a costume change or a nap between sets.

I recently got myself a dad-racer [like a boy-racer, but more practical] – not too ostentatious, but a step up from the ol’ banger I started with [and loved very dearly]. I got this through Personal Contract Purchase (PCP). I pay to hire the car every month.

The flexible PCP contract suited me – I’m self-employed and I’ve never had a ‘proper job’. I didn’t want to be tied down to a particular car. I wasn’t sure whether one day I’d go full on Scooby Doo Mystery Machine so I can fit in all the members of a wind quintet, or if I’d disappear off to Mongolia to learn the ways of traditional Tuvan throat singing. In Mongolia, one is better off with a horse.

Now I don’t drive at all, save for a big shopping trip. All my work has dried up. COVID-19 has left me with a big lump of metal outside to pay for every month and I can’t afford it.

I think it makes sense for me to get a month or three off paying, or at least a discount. I paid for this car in the trust that I would use it. Now there’s a literal pandemic, a literal lockdown, and I think it’s only fair that my fixed lease is extended.

I make my case via email to Far Sisters Motor Finance (fictitiously named, in the hope the real company doesn’t punish me further). I get a phone call a few days later from a lady I’m going to call Vera.

There’s nothing else we can do for you I’m afraid, everyone’s going through this.”

30 seconds of schtum. I’m shocked by Vera’s words. Everyone’s going through this? We’re all in this together? That neo-blitz spirit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has nefarious consequences. “It’s bad we can’t help you, but remember, we’re all in this together!”  I feel defeated, put the phone down, and hear the Dam Busters March play on a rusty, old music box in my head.

But, like any business, Far Sisters need my money. They need it in order to pay staff members, like Vera Lynn whom I just spoke to, so they can continue to call up customers to tell them that they can’t have their money back. The money they’re spending to not drive their cars.

The best they could offer was “breathing space”, but what about the value of my car? It’s still three months of a car I can’t drive. In a way, this encourages me to drive more… gotta get those miles in I’ve paid for. Wasted petrol, C02 pollution galore!

It might seem relatively petty, and I can hear the scoffs already, “there are people worse off than you.”

But there are people, waaayyy better off than me. Like the bosses of these finance companies. And the housing rent companies that refuse to give rent holidays. They’re getting ‘Money for Nothing’ whilst we’re in Dire Straits. We self-employed people are squeezed in the middle. People don’t know quite what to do with us. People are saying sign up to Universal Credit (I have) and to sign onto this and that, but do I trust a government scheme any more than I do the good nature of my finance company?

Time will tell. But remember, we’re all in this together. Some are on the top, and some are on the bottom. I’m somewhere in the middle, and nobody wants to speak for us.

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is a local musician and community activist. You can keep up to date with him at www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic