This year could mark a watershed for the beleaguered independent sector with several structural changes swiftly impacting prospects. The oil companies continue their orderly retreat from direct retailing (Murco, Esso, Shell) and we have been monitoring these disposals carefully. We predict that the independent sector could increase to more than 6,000 sites by the end of 2015, which would represent some 70% of all UK filling stations. It’s a point that is being made to all interested government departments.

Meantime, the big four supermarkets are suddenly finding life tough at the top as UK consumers change their shopping habits.

Part of their problem is the rise of the discounters. Aldi has just opened its 500th store in the UK (all without fuel) and has a £600m development plan over the next three years, which includes convenience formats. And Lidl has a similar investment programme to increase its store numbers.

As a result the press has reported that the development programmes for new large stores (often with forecourts) by both Tesco and Sainsbury are being substantially reined in. But Asda appears to be trying to push through plans to increase its fuel outlet numbers, either by retrofits on its car park areas or through new standalone ’automats’.

If correct, the slowdown in supermarket forecourt openings would be encouraging news for independent fuel retailers in England, who have found that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced last year, provides scant protection. The planning process has been devolved to the local authorities (LAs) with nearly 60 applications being submitted in the past 12 months which include a filling station. About one third can be attributable to a specific supermarket. Members’ complaints focus on the lack of proper impact studies as headline-grabbing promised job increases, purchase of LA land and other factors seem to sway the planners and councillors.

Finally, it was interesting that the 1.1% increase in retail fuel volumes for the first six months of 2014 was split +2.8% for independents/oil companies and minus1.1% for supermarkets perhaps confirming that shoppers really are reducing their trips to the mega stores with fuel? These are certainly changing times for fuel retailers.