Forecourt Trader - 30 years at the heart of the fuel retailing community
News » Analysis

Fuelling the future

The UK is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of automotive hydrogen development, with countries such as China, Korea and Japan pushing ahead at a rapid rate, according to Charles Purkess, business development manager at ITM Power. He was part of the 'Fuelling the Future: On the Road to Zero' session chaired by TV presenter and motoring journalist Quentin Willson, at last month's Forecourt Show. The packed event featured PRA chairman Brian Madderson; BP Chargemaster CEO Dave Newton; TSG UK's business development director of EV Solutions, Michelle Machesney; and petroleum manager of the London Fire Brigade, Clare Scawthorn.

Last throw of the dice

When the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its damning provisional findings on the proposed merger between Sainsbury's and Asda on February 20, many commentators thought the deal was dead.

A year of upheaval

This year has seen massive upheaval in the Top 50 Indies listing, compared with 2018 when not only were the Top 10 companies all the same companies as the previous year, but they were all in the same order too. Not least among the changes is that, for the first time in its existence, the Top 50 is not headed by MRH. It was swallowed up by MFG last year, making the combined organisation well over twice the size of its nearest rival and taking top spot for the first time.

Evading the issue

When a Parliamentary Committee of MPs announced last year that it was launching an inquiry into the hand car wash sector it appeared that a long campaign was finally paying off. For years the PRA and its sister organisation, the Car Wash Association (CWA), have been highlighting the explosion in the numbers of rogue operators, and calling for action by the authorities. By paying no taxes, using slave labour and ignoring pollution regulations, these operators were able to undercut legitimate car washes, driving many of them out of the sector.

Competition for growth still intense

We've just had a year of seismic events with the second largest operator, MFG, buying its larger rival MRH, and Sainsbury's agreeing a deal with Asda that would make it the UK's number one road fuel retailer. And while one deal has cleared all its regulatory hurdles, and the other is facing an uphill struggle in its engagement with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), both are likely to continue to reverberate through the coming year.

The police have got it wrong

As police services across the UK have cut the number of frontline officers in response to funding pressures, chief constables and politicians have been looking for ways to ease the burden on the remaining crime fighters. One way that has been repeatedly suggested is downgrading the importance attached to forecourt drive-off crimes. It is a policy that has been proposed by a number of police chiefs over the years, but the first time it made major national headlines was in 2014.

Turning the tide

For many years the government has turned a deaf ear whenever the PRA and the Car Wash Association (CWA) have highlighted the scourge of illegal hand car washes springing up in towns and cities across the UK, but finally it has been presented with evidence it can't ignore. The Commons Environment Audit Committee (EAC) has completed its inquiry into hand car washes (HCWs) and the cross-party group of MPs has produced a report containing hard-hitting criticism of authorities for failing to enforce the law and recommendations on how corrupt HCWs can be tackled.

Turning the tide

The sell-offs of large tranches of their forecourt estates by some of the biggest oil companies has changed the structure of the UK market for most of this century. No one would argue that MRH, MFG, Euro Garages and Rontec would not have been the dominant groups in the Top 50 Indies in 2018, whether or not there had been the sell-offs, but they would be nowhere as big as they are without them.

Deals that dominate the market

After its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), gave the road fuels market a clean bill of health in early 2013, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has ignored calls for a fresh inquiry and left the sector well alone. But two major deals mean it is now assessing businesses that between them own 18.5% of the UK's forecourts and account for almost a quarter of the road fuel sold in the UK.

A rocky road ahead

The Road to Zero strategy is nothing short of the government's blueprint to phase out two of the bed rocks of the forecourt sector petrol and diesel. While the 'zero' it refers to is emissions from road vehicles, its method for achieving this is prohibiting the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars (excluding hybrids) by 2040, and aiming for close to nil on the roads by 2050.

Conundrums for retail managers

Facing change and challenges are major aspects of the job of a retail manager in the fuels marketing and forecourt retailing sector. Looking at the market now compared with where it was five years ago, there has been significant change and upheaval. There are, however, some things that never change the most important of which is that if you are not looking after your customers and keeping up with or preferably ahead of your rivals and market trends, you are falling behind.

Targeting the cowboys

Years of campaigning by the PRA and Car Wash Association paid off last month when their chairman, Brian Madderson, was invited to give evidence to MPs on the damage unregulated hand car washes are wreaking on the legitimate trade, and the environment. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has used a wide interpretation of its brief to investigate not only the pollution caused by hand car washes (HCWs), but also the harm they cause to sustainability in terms of labour exploitation and other associated criminality.

Fuel for thought

None of the pontificating politicians in Westminster, who are currently debating forcing forecourts to install electric charging points, appear to have given any thought to the practical issues involved. Had they attended the launch of the fourth edition of the Blue Book they would now be having second thoughts.

UK Hand Car Wash Market - Key Fact

Size >10,000 hand car washes (7,000 mechanical washes), around 60% of total

Turning the tide

With the National Crime Agency investigating links with organised crime and drug smuggling, and raids almost on a daily basis looking for slaves among their work forces, illicit hand car wash operators were probably wondering when MPs would wake up to the problems they pose. What few were expecting, however, was that it was their appalling record of environmental carnage, which has faced minimal enforcement from the authorities, that has finally tipped the balance.

Fuel for thought

Shell added some perspective to the 'electric' onslaught last month with the opening of a new hydrogen refuelling station at Shell Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. It happened in the same week as the Department for Transport confirmed a multi-million pound funding boost to increase the uptake of hydrogen.

Opportunity knocks?

With the two biggest members of Forecourt Trader's Top 50 Indies snapping up more and more of the other groups in the listing, it was only a matter of time before they began to consider the biggest deal of all, but its timing still took many people by surprise.

Electric avenues

Many forecourts owners have been looking at the various options for installing electric charging facilities, with many deciding it is too early to commit, but a Bill currently going through Parliament may force their hand.

Motoring at full speed

I f anyone thought that the rate of acquisitions by the biggest dealers during 2017 could not possibly be maintained in the New Year, then the first week of 2018 appears to have dispelled that notion. Having just snapped up 14 sites with the acquisition of the Golden Cross Group, MFG is now reported to be sizing up a bid for MRH.

Mind the gap

While Palmer and Harvey's difficulties were common knowledge they'd put out a notice about takeover talks to secure the company's future the instant termination of all deliveries when it went into administration meant forecourt owners had to scramble to keep their shops supplied.

Charging the industry

Motorway services and large petrol retailers will be forced to install charge points and hydrogen refuelling points for electric cars, under plans confirmed in the House of Commons by transport minister John Hayes.

Spending spree

By the standards of recent years the number of acquisitions by the Top 50 Indies has been quite modest since the 2017 listing was published in March. But that all changed in September, with a flurry of deals. However, with all the major sell-offs by oil companies completed, it is now smaller groups and fellow Top 50 Indies, rather than big tranches of sites, that are being snapped up.

Action on slavery

As many forecourt owners with car wash facilities know to their cost, unscrupulous hand car washes (HCWs), with no regard for labour laws or environmental regulations, can steal many of their customers away by undercutting legitimate businesses. Initially, the authorities seemed reluctant to tackle this scourge, but after intense lobbying by the PRA, and the realisation that HCWs are often involved in human trafficking and slavery, people at the very top are demanding action.

Taking the long view

The government's long-awaited plan to tackle air pollution was always going to be controversial, after the High Court had dismissed earlier proposals as not good enough, and set a deadline of July 31 for it to come up with something better. But the media storm whipped up by its UK Plan for Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Levels had little to do with its contents, and instead focused on something that will not take effect for 23 years.

Who foots the Bill?

The government's vision for the future of the road travel, which was outlined in the Queen's Speech, contained both reassurance and potential threats for the forecourt sector. The good news is that the government is clearly confident about the future of the forecourt sector, as it features in a pivotal role in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. The threat is posed by the major changes the government is planning to introduce in its determination to develop the electric and hydrogen-powered sector, and questions over who is going to pay for them.

Back to the future

This time last year we were coming to the end of a major restructuring of the industry, as private equity funding was driving the big dealer groups to acquire a large number of sites being sold off by the oil companies. This activity has slowed down over the past year and the UK Fuel Market 2017 vs 2016 on the right shows how the sector has returned to familiar trends.

Safety first

The terrorist attacks at the Manchester Arena and on London Bridge mean security is top of the agenda for many companies, and an incident in Manchester demonstrates why the forecourt sector needs to be vigilant. A Texaco petrol station in the city found itself on the front line in the fight against terrorism when armed police swooped on a customer and briefly closed down the site.

Clearing the air

After hordes of headlines suggesting owners of diesel cars were about to be clobbered with huge pollution charges, there were fears that the surge in demand for diesel would suddenly shudder into reverse, but new proposals from the government have eased some of the anxiety at least temporarily.

Diesel dilemma

Diesel has grown to dominate the road fuels market in the UK, driven by government tax incentives for car drivers. In 2001, with the government seeking to reduce CO2 emissions, the greater efficiency of diesel engines compared with petrol made it the obvious choice, and tax rates were adjusted accordingly.

Building growth

The seemingly inexorable rise in the number of sites run by the Top 50 Indies continued last year, but the increase of 99 to 2,222 is much lower than the 300-plus increases of the two previous years.

Tapping into key trends

The internet has now been widely available for so long that many consumers have grown up with it, and as it continues to develop and affect more areas of everyone's lives it is helping to shape trends in shopper behaviour in the convenience sector. HIM Research & Consulting has been studying these developments in consumer activity and has identified three key trends which could influence future behaviour of shoppers at forecourt shops: the casual connoisseur, the modern mindset; and fast consumption.

Investing in growth

Many dealers continued adding to their estates in 2016, driving up demand, and therefore the value of sites fuelling continued optimism and investment in the fuel retailing sector.

Risks of reform

A House of Lords Select Committee is currently interviewing witnesses as it considers making proposals to reform the licensing laws. Any recommendations will not be binding on the Government, but are likely to be persuasive, and could impact on petrol retailers.

Drive to boost hydrogen sites

The government is consulting on plans to force larger service stations, supermarket forecourts and motorway service areas (MSAs) to provide hydrogen refuelling facilities and charging points for electric vehicles.

Rates rollercoaster

As this issue of Forecourt Trader went to press the Government had just published the headline figures on the results of its revaluation of business rates, and forecourt owners were waiting to see how their bills in April 2017 were likely to be affected. It reported that rateable values in the retail sector were set to increase by an average of 4.7%, although this was heavily influenced by a 26.2% increase in rateable values in London, with most regions in England and Wales seeing a decrease. There is also due to be a reduction of 1.7p from 49.7p in the standard rates multiplier.

Feeding growth

Food-to-go in the UK offers significant opportunities for growth, according to the latest figures from IGD, which has unveiled new research into the market for the very first time. Driven by changing shopper lifestyles, IGD is anticipating the market to be worth £16.1bn in 2016, up by 6.8% from 2015.

The fight goes on

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has successfully appealed to the Upper Tribunal Chamber (UTC) against the decision in the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) that HMRC's decision to refuse Brobot Petroleum an excise duty Deferment Account Number was unreasonable.

Under pressure

If the most important factor affecting the forecourt sector is fuel sales, then the 2016 Statistical Report from UKPIA (UK Petroleum Industry Association) contains a heartening message. Total road fuel sales looked to be in a permanent decline after year-on-year falls from their peak in 2007 to 2013, but the trend is now positive again after the figure increased slightly for the second consecutive year in 2015. Nevertheless total road fuel sales are 9% lower than they were in 2007.

Results of this month's online poll:

With the latest diesel cars requiring Adblue every fifth or sixth visit to a petrol station, do you currently have plans to install the appropriate dispensers?

Level pegging

As Forecourt Trader went to press the nationwide polls showed the two sides were neck and neck and it was too close for either side to be confident of winning the referendum on June 23. As the pressure has mounted supporters of each camp have become increasingly desperate to land a decisive punch, ramping up the rhetoric and stoking up the heat, but the blizzard of contradictory claims has shed comparatively little light.

Delivering growth

The number of Londis and Budgens stores on independent forecourts is set to soar after Top 50 Indie Motor Fuel Group (MFG) signed a new shop supply agreement with Booker Retail Partners (BRP), commencing on July 1.

When staff are a liability

In the recent case of Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc, the Supreme Court ruled that WM Morrison was vicariously liable, as an employer, for an unprovoked attack carried out by one of its forecourt staff on a customer. This case raises important points and considerations for all petrol filling station and retail operators, particularly those where a small number of employees are left to operate a site with little supervision.

Top 50 Indies own 25% of UK sites

The Top 50 Indies now account for almost 25% of the forecourts in the entire UK market, according to Forecourt Trader's latest report on the biggest independent retailers.Editor Merril Boulton told an audience of more than 150 at the 2016 Top 50 Indies Dinner that between them they added 361 sites during 2015 taking the total Top 50 to 2,123 sites.

Top of the class

Despite a surge of more than 300 in the total number of sites run by the Top 50 in last year's report, the independent sector's appetite for growth showed no sign of slackening with an even greater increase over the most recent 12 months.

Positive outlook

Last year saw a major landmark for the dealer sector in the UK as it powered ahead to represent nearly 70% of all UK forecourts.

Rising through the ranks

In what has already been a hectic year for businesses in Forecourt Trader's Top 50 Indies, another twist has just been added by HKS more than doubling in size to just under 60 sites in just three months.

World class

Euro Garages' rapid growth in the UK since its formation in 2001 has already propelled it into third spot in the Forecourt Trader Top 50 Indies, and now it is aiming to become a leading player on a bigger stage. after a private equity firm agreed to invest in the company.

Pumping up the future

With Shell signing a deal for hydrogen refuelling stations (HFSs) at three of its sites, and Toyota launching its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the UK, a new kind of fuel is finally gaining a little traction in this country.

Deferred justice

Brobot Petroleum, a Top 50 Indie which operates 23 filling stations in the Midlands, has successfully appealed via the First Tier Tax Tribunal against HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) imposition of unreasonable conditions to obtain an excise duty Deferment Account Number: Oil Products.

Mind the gap

Over the past few months, as the gap in wholesale prices for diesel and unleaded petrol has narrowed, a debate has raged between motoring organisations and retailers as to whether drivers were paying too much for diesel.

  • Weekly
    Retail
  • Weekly
    wholesale
  • Daily
    Average
Weekly retail fuel prices: 20 May 2019
RegionDieselLPGSuper ULUL
East135.9360.77140.55130.16
East Midlands135.28141.26129.82
London135.21142.69130.48
North East134.06140.71129.20
North West134.87139.96129.27
Northern Ireland131.95135.90127.71
Scotland135.09139.31129.71
South East135.9463.57142.34130.70
South West135.01139.53129.65
Wales134.52138.23128.74
West Midlands134.83141.89129.64
Yorkshire & Humber134.1257.70141.27129.10

Most read

Following last month's London protests and damage to Shell's UK HQ, do you believe forecourts should be preparing themselves in case of possible attacks by climate change campaigners?