Don’t invest too heavily in electric charging because in the long term the market will move towards hydrogen, was the advice given to retailers at this week’s Top 50 Indie dinner by TV presenter and motoring journalist Quentin Willson.

“Put in a few chargers, but don’t invest heavily because the technology will change,” he said. “The take-up of electric cars is going to start slowing. People want affordable electric cars, but the range is just not there.”

He said there would be a rise in the take-up of hybrids, which may be good for town use, doing around 20 miles on electricity, but on longer journeys people will still use petrol or diesel to fuel the cars.

“The amount of people that drive pure electric cars will be very limited,” stressed Willson, who has driven around 50,000 miles in a variety of electric cars he has owned in the past seven years. “So in terms of your future, you will still be selling petrol and diesel – but less of it because the cars will be more economical. But the threat of an EV-only world is massively over-blown.

“In the long term hydrogen will start to become a really interesting fuel source, because we understand it. We’ve got CNG and LPG – we know that you can fill a car up with gas in a few minutes. That is the way I believe the market will go. So investment decisions really should be held off for a while before we see exactly how this goes.”

Meanwhile the Top 50 Indies sector has continued to grow - maybe not at the rate of the recent oil company sell-off years - but it grew by 54 sites, to 2,276, and now represents a growing and very significant 27% of the overall forecourt sector.

However the slowdown in growth is nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Top 50 Indies, according to Forecourt Trader editor Merril Boulton and publisher/md Lorraine Hendle, who presented the latest report; but everything to do with the shortage of the right sites, and high property prices.

Much of the talk during the evening was about the surprising announcement last month of the acquisition of MRH by MFG, a deal likely to be completed within the next few months, subject to customary regulatory approvals.

Until completion - and with the shortage of available sites - there had been no change in the Top 10 positions in the listing from 2017. The highest movement was in 11th place where Kay Group’s strategy of building new-to-industry sites moved it up one place, with the addition of two sites.

At the beginning of March at least, MRH continued to lead the field - as it had done since the start of the listing in 2007 - expanding its estate from 480 sites to 491, a net gain of nine. Its most significant acquisition in the past year was Top 50 Indie Chartman’s, adding 10 sites. It also bought Peregrine Retail adding five sites; and Mitha Forecourts adding two.

MFG, which grew its estate by 34 - the biggest grower on the list snapped up nine sites from Manor Service Stations and a further 14 from the Golden Cross Group - both great Top 50 Indie operators.

Applegreen was the second-fastest grower on the list, adding 19 sites to increase its UK network from 72 to 91. Its acquisitions included seven sites from the Carsley Group deal. It also completed eye-catching service area developments at Spalding in Lincolnshire and Spaldwick in Cambridgeshire, as it continues to innovate in terms of site design and customer offers, particularly foodservice.

With five Top 50 Indie groups being taken over by other Top 50 groups, and Rusdene slipping just out of the Top 50 after selling a site to BP, there were six new entries in the listing this year.

Two of the new entries - Park Road Group and George Hammond plc have been in the main listing in previous years; and Jos Richardson & Son was in the bubbling under category last year.

From the comments supplied the report reveals a lot of confidence in the market as Top 50 companies across the board show a strong appetite for expansion and development. The Top 50 Indies is in good health, with a lot of further development planned for 2018.

The full listing will appear in next month’s issue of Forecourt Trader.