Parts of Britain are in danger of becoming ‘fuel deserts’ as the number of petrol stations hits a new low, new research from Palmer & Harvey has warned.

The Palmer and Harvey Forecourt Report reveals that while there are currently 31 million cars on the road, Britain has fewer than half the petrol stations it had 20 years ago, leading to many areas at risk of having nowhere for motorists to refuel or shop.

Petrol station numbers are down from 21,000 to fewer than 9,000 over the same period, and most of the top 10 fuel deserts are in southern English counties. Torridge, Devon has the lowest ratio of forecourts to cars – with 11,300 cars sharing each forecourt. In comparison, Ceredigion on the Welsh coast has only 1,100 cars per petrol station.

Chris Etherington, Palmer and Harvey’s chief executive, said: “Fuel deserts have been created across the country due to a number of factors – volatile fuel prices, an uncertain economy and unfavourable exchange rates, not to mention a changing retail landscape, fluctuating land prices and supply chain costs.

“These fuel deserts lead to massive inconvenience for the already hard-pressed motorist, and also to the loss of a focal point in communities that have often lost their local pub, village shop, post office or even, in the worst cases, their entire high street.

“In many places, the local forecourt is or was the last retailer left. They are as important to the nation as pubs and village shops, and we will all suffer if the closures continue. There is still scope for entrepreneurs to make a success of these sites, but they need to understand that the attached convenience store is just as important as the petrol pumps – perhaps even more so.”

The areas of mainland Britain with the busiest fuel pumps after Torridge in Devon are:

Slough, Berkshire (10,200 cars per petrol station)

Rushmoor, Hampshire (10,100 cars per petrol station)

Broadland, Norfolk (9,900 cars per petrol station)

Maldon,  Essex (9,200 cars per petrol station)

Rochford, Essex, (7,500 cars per petrol station)

Adur, West Sussex,  (7,200 cars per petrol station)

Oadby and Wigston, Leicestershire, (7,100 cars per petrol station)

South Norfolk (6,600 cars per petrol station)

Clackmannanshire, Central Scotland (6,500 cars per petrol station)

Palmer and Harvey supplies 70% of all UK forecourts with products (not fuel) and advises many on how to improve their businesses. Despite the falling number of forecourts, the wholesaler is positive about the future of the industry and says the situation presents an opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs, particularly those willing to offset low-margin fuel with a good forecourt shop offering.

Etherington said: “Traditional forecourt operators are being replaced by big grocery retailers and entrepreneurial independents, including symbol groups like Mace, and by small convenience retail chains. Many UK forecourt operators come to us for advice on how to make their business work. We are increasingly advising them to strengthen their convenience offer to make their businesses work harder.”