Maybe it’s the rebel in me, maybe it’s the cynic, but I’ve never really been a great believer in joining groups for collective bargaining. Let’s face it, business success is usually derived at the expense of another business. So it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that I’m actually quite sad about the turmoil currently engulfing the PRA.
So where lies the PRA’s future? It seems to me the solution to the conundrum can be found by examining the functions of a trade association.
Since the days of the caveman, individuals have banded together to protect themselves from a larger, outside force. In this function of protection the PRA has attempted to offer a shield against the threats posed by government, multi-national suppliers and by forms of unfair competition. But how successful has it been?
A bit like the old joke about the lady spreading anti-elephant powder in Trafalgar Square (it must be very effective, as it’s kept them away for hundreds of years), the verdict on the PRA’s performance on the protection issue has to be balanced - the reality of where we are versus the speculation of where we would have been without its intervention.
The reality is that we still exist - albeit that for most of us petrol has become almost peripheral.
I certainly believe there has been some success in shielding us from some of the more hare-brained ideas that successive governments have floated. But that was only in concert with other more powerful allies. On its own I’m not so sure.
In offering protection from the oilers, I don’t think the PRA ever got them to radically change their treatment of us, but I do think the mere fact of its existence did make them tread more carefully. (And occasionally offer greater levels of compensation for their changes in operational direction.) As for protection from unfair competition, I’m afraid that the current dominance by the hypers bears witness to the PRA’s failure in this respect. Which is not to say it didn’t try, because it tried very hard but it’s just that, in petrol retailing terms, governments have viewed hypers as good and independent retailers as bad.
Which leads us to the next function of a trade association, that of influencing legislators and public opinion. We have reached a stage where our ability to influence legislators is at an all-time low, basically because, except in extreme cases that result in major disruption, the legislators don’t care a fig. And the legislators that are having the greatest impact on our lives aren’t in Whitehall anyway. Where I do believe the PRA has had great success is in getting the public to understand that they are paying a fortune at the pump because of taxation and not because we need to fund our next round-the-world cruise.
In most other functions of a trade association I think the PRA has been pretty effective. It does provide information, through Forecourt and its road shows, on forthcoming changes in legislation, technology and market trends. It has been able to offer its members access to expert advice on technical and legal matters and it has been able to negotiate some attractive deals on a host of services.
So, do we still need a trade association? Absolutely. Its future roles will be mainly that of providing information and offering advice to its members and negotiating deals on their behalf.
Does it matter who it teams up with? Provided the finance is available to fund the legal and technical function, I don’t really think so. But for that to happen a future PRA must be able to attract members in order to pay for itself. Given the major source of our income, I personally believe that membership is more likely to be attracted if we are allied to the convenience store sector. Provided, of course, that they will have us, bearing in mind that to the majority of their existing members we are the enemy. As I said, it’s a dog eat dog world!