Petrol retailers are being advised to “behave normally”, in the face of rising fuel prices and bad press caused by the extortionate pricing of a handful of forecourts.
PRA director Ray Holloway said retailers should not think of stocking more fuel than usual in case of a shortage as the high cost of fuel was already adding to their financial burden. “It should be business as usual. I would not recommend any retailers involve themselves in over-pricing at the pumps, to take advantage of motorists currently keeping their tanks full.
“During the fuel crisis of 2000, of those that pursued that strategy, none remained in business for very long once the crisis had ended. It’s short-term gain for long-term disaster. Customers have good memories.”
However Holloway believes it is unlikely there will be a return to the fuel crisis of 2000. “At the moment the protests are being planned on a regional basis. But if it did get more serious, key lessons were learned and taken on board by the government last time round. There is now an Emergency Response Plan in place, part of which would allow the government to regulate the amount of fuel sold to each motorists – should the need arise. There would also be no time lost putting such a plan into action – last time nothing happened for four days.”
Holloway also believes that the Government could suspend the proposed 2p rise in fuel tax in September, which could take some of the steam out of the demonstrations. “At this stage it would cost nothing to suspend it – the 2p levy was scheduled to raise £1.7bn, but it has already earned a windfall in excess of £3bn through the increased tax payable on the current higher fuel prices. It would be a good move before the local and European elections – a good vote-winner late in the day.”
Jonathan James of Witchford Road Service Station in Ely, Cambridgeshire believes protests look likely: “I’m confident they’re going to happen. Hauliers are working on tight margins so paying the higher fuel prices is like taking bread from their mouths. It could be as bad as 2000 because the Government hasn’t learnt from last time.
“I’m not making any preparations – I don’t know what I can do to prepare. If you can get a supply then great, but I’m in the hands of our suppliers.”
Graham Kennedy of Inner Space Stations said the last fuel crisis was a complete nightmare for everyone, and it would be the same this time. “Hauliers should blockade the government – not stop fuel suppliers at their source – because taxation is the real problem. We still see the supermarkets selling at a loss but we’re not profiteering and won’t. But it looks like we are because supermarkets ar prepared to sell at 79.9 and make a loss.
“There is a growing swell of public backlash and these stupid emails calling for people to boycott BP and Esso are concerning because that’s the wrong strategy. I would suggest to the oil companies that they need to be extremely proactive in their PR so that people understand that it is about Government tax rather than retailers profiteering. They need to take adverts in newspapers and explain how much a gallon costs. If we allow this groundswell of misinformation people will start believing it. They need to understand that the reason supermarkets can sell at a loss is because they’re making 20p on bananas.
“In the 2000 crisis our business benefited because we eked out our supply and sold at a reasonable price. I’m going to start to think about making preparations now. Oil companies have got emergency plans. Next week after the first protest we could see a snow-balling effect of people panic-buying – fuel sales are particularly high at the moment.”
Bert Morris, deputy director at the AA Motoring Trust said there would be some protests but there would be sufficient supplies. “The police will ensure supplies gets through. People should act normally. If motorists start stockpiling that disrupts the whole fuel supply system and creates more problems. Last time the entire stock of fuel was in people’s tanks. There’s a greater risk from that than from people blockading refineries.
“We want the Chancellor to reflect on the high price and reconsider the tax increase. If he does that and makes an early announcement it will take the sting out of the whole thing. He needs to show sympathy to the people who are struggling to cope with such high prices and defer the tax increase again.”
A spokesman from the Department of Trade and Industry was not very forthcoming about plans to maintain fuel supplies in the event of a crisis. “The DTI has contingency plans, but doesn’t discuss the content of those at all. They are for any disruption of the fuel supply and they are flexible. We don’t reveal the content because they wouldn’t be contingency plans if everyone knew what they were. But the Government, police and the fuel industry remain alert to any attempt to disrupt fuel supply.”