Disruption caused by winter weather is not unexpected in the forecourt sector, but what has made this winter different is the type of bad weather and the length it has gone on for. A day or two of snow can block roads, and the authorities are usually able to get traffic moving again fairly swiftly, but when it rains until there are floods, and then rains a lot more, it may take weeks before an affected business is able to get up and running again.
Another unusual feature of this winter’s extreme weather is the areas that have been affected. Hampshire, Berkshire, and Surrey have not featured much in weather warnings prior to 2014, but in February, forecourts in all three counties were badly affected by floods. One of the sites hit hardest by flooding was the BP/Simply Food on the A22 at Whyteleafe in Surrey. It is situated on one of the main roads south out of London, and is usually a bustling 24-hour site. When the floods came on February 5 there was initially relief because they only reached the perimeter of the site, so it was not knocked out of action.
However, the problem was that the floods blocked the road and the police closed it at the junction before the petrol station. This meant that it lost all of its passing trade and the only customers were a few hardy local pedestrians, and the occasional 4x4 driver willing to brave the floods and ignore the ’road closed’ sign. One of the problems the site has faced has been getting deliveries, but as business has been so slow, only a few fresh product lines have run low. Three weeks after the flood water arrived it was still there, and the authorities have even built a raised walkway so pedestrians can get past, but the road was still closed with no one able to say when it might re-open.
One site that was flooded was the Esso-owned service station at Romsey in Hampshire. Pictures of its forecourt under flood water were posted on a blog called Countryside Tales. An Esso spokesman said: "The Esso Greatbridge service station in Romsey was closed on Saturday, February 8, due to flooding of the River Test. The service station will remain closed until further notice."
However, the emergency caused by the flooding of the River Thames the following weekend brought some unexpected help for one affected forecourt.
The Gulf-branded Datchet Green Service Station near Slough had been flooded earlier in the week and was facing an inundation from the River Thames, when local residents volunteered their help.
Luckily the site is not far from Windsor Castle, and local residents in this case included Prince William, Prince Harry and members of the Household Cavalry Regiment, who were on hand to help build sandbag defences which kept the flood waters at bay.
Their intervention helped to limit damage to the site, and meant that manholes stayed firm and product contamination was averted.
Bilal Naeem, manager of the site, said they were forced to close by rising flood levels on Monday February 10 when the road was closed by police. However, despite the water continuing to rise through the week, and advancing across the forecourt, it did not come in the shop.
He said that the wall of sandbags had helped to prevent water getting into the fuel tanks, and the involvement of the two princes had created a stir among customers.
Bilal said: "We re-opened on Monday and all the customers have been coming in and saying they have seen us on every single news channel because of the coverage of the princes."
Some of the most dramatic TV coverage of the flooding was at the Somerset Levels, where the village of Moorland had to be evacuated, but its nearest petrol station had a more positive experience.
Christopher Duckworth, who manages the BP petrol station at Bridgwater, said the floodwaters were about two miles away, and they had not affected his site.
He added that since a decision after Christmas to match the prices of the Morrisons in the town, takings had actually increased.
He said: "The roads were particularly bad one Wednesday after the rain and that caused a bit of disruption to deliveries, but the only time we had to close was for the two days before Christmas when BP couldn’t get through.
"I think the people from Moorland have been pleased that we have been here to serve them."
While the flooding has caused the greatest disruption to businesses, the strong winds which accompanied some of the rain have also caused some damage to pole signs and canopies.
In Leicestershire, however, the damage was far more severe when an articulated lorry ploughed into a petrol station after it was blown off the A47 road by the gales late on Friday, February 14. It crashed into one petrol pump, knocking it over, and was brought to halt when it hit a central concrete pillar supporting the canopy over the forecourt at Morcott Services in Oakham.
Although the cab was ripped open in the collision, the driver was not injured and managed to get out of the vehicle. Luckily the site was closed at the time and no staff or customers were present.
Three fire engines attended and a Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said: "The petrol pumps had isolated themselves and firefighters made the vehicle and the petrol station safe."
The lorry could not be removed for several days because the canopy had been so badly damaged that it had to be dismantled first, and it is likely to be several weeks before the site can be re-opened.
On February 20, the Prime Minister David Cameron announced a number of measures to support businesses affected by the flooding. Businesses that have been flooded since December 2013 will qualify for 100% business rate relief for three months, regardless of how long they were flooded, and he said the government expected local authorities to implement this immediately. However, businesses with a rateable value of over £10m will not be eligible for rates relief
Business Support Scheme funding is also being provided on top of business rate relief, to enable local councils to help flooded businesses and those who have been indirectly affected through loss of trade, for example by being cut off.
In addition there will be £5,000 repair and renewal grants for flooded homes and businesses, again administered by local authorities.