The Car Wash Campaign Group got under way in London with its first meeting last month, with independent retailer David Charman at its helm as chairman. But the organisation fundamental to its formation was the Association of Convenience Stores, which is headed up by James Lowman, who took over as chief executive just six months ago.
"We are running the day-to-day activities of the car wash group, providing administrative support as well as implementing the lobbying process," explains Lowman. "But it’s not our group - it belongs to the retailers and the car wash operators. They have asked us to do that work."
The need for such a group became clear last summer when the ACS received lots of calls from its forecourt retailer members, particularly in the south of England, who were concerned about the drought orders being issued.
"It was felt that the water authorities didn’t understand what the car washes were all about, and what the implications of the drought orders would be to their businesses," says Lowman. "Clearly car washing is an important profit centre for forecourts. So we felt we had to do something to help protect retailers’ businesses.
"At the time we weren’t set up to give them the necessary help locally - we could write to the water authorities, respond to formal consultations, and generally go through the political process of making the case. We were also able to gather information about water usage in different types of car washes. But we felt there was a much bigger issue here, which was not going to go away. Okay, so this year there seems less likelihood of any drought orders, but nevertheless, in the long-term this is an issue that is likely to keep coming back.
"So we looked at trying to find a way of being able to have better influence at a local level."
Alongside the drought order issue the ACS has also received calls from members extremely concerned about illegal car washers.
"Critically these car washers are not complying with the same environmental legislation in terms of things like oil interceptors and water disposal as the established car wash operators," says Lowman. "So we feel there needs to be an informed debate about how car washing is regulated in the UK."
Initially the car wash group will be intent on information gathering. It has core support from the major car wash manufacturers.
"Money has to be raised to get the lobbying work done and set up a legal fund," says Lowman. "Particularly with regard to a drought order, if there is a case to be made locally, we can’t be going in fishing around for pennies. You have to have a proper fund to make the case - because once the case is won or lost, you’ve created a precedent, so you need to make the case well.
"The tactic will be, in the case of a drought order, to try and get exemptions for proper car washes, to prevent them being closed down on environmental grounds. Also in that case, we need to establish whether the exemption would only be for car washes with water recycling, and if so, what level of fresh water they will allow for the wash. We need to form that debate with proper information, which is what we’re getting together now."
He is aware that roadside car washing is banned in Germany, but trying to ban it in the UK is not currently on the agenda.
But as evidence is built up, Lowman believes there is likely to be a debate at some stage around water usage generally.
"One of the things that will be part of that debate will be about home car washing. There’s bucket and sponge, and there’s hosepipe, and in terms of water usage the two are radically different. But they’re still the same in terms of the disposal of water - there’s an environmental issue there."
"But at the moment the big concern is about unregulated car washers. The issue here is to try and get the Environment Agency to enforce existing car wash legislation."
"There is a clear distinction between unregulated and roadside car washing," explains Lowman. "With car wash operations of any kind - whether hand or machine - those who comply with environmental regulations and those who are responsible in the way they dispose of effluent water should be encouraged and supported. Those who don’t comply shouldn’t be allowed to operate.
"There are some very good hand car wash operators out there, and they’re not the people we’re trying to get at. They compete on a level playing field in terms of employment and environmental legislation, and they may well operate in conjunction with a traditional forecourt operation.
"But they have to be complying with the same environmental legislation and rules as other operators. It’s not fair if you get people who are able to work on a different cost base because they’re not having to make an investment in the environmental aspect of the business."
One of the key things Lowman wants to do is explain to people why unregulated car washing is an issue, hence a diagram has been created to illustrate the problem of untreated water flowing back into the river and sea - and this will be fed to the media, the public and policy makers wherever possible.
There are currently two consultations taking place by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) at the moment around water usage and management of waste water, and the ACS is compiling a relevant response to those.
Meanwhile, Lowman says the Car Wash Campaign Group - which will meet every other month - will be inclusive, involving everyone who has an interest in promoting responsible car wash practice.
=== Lowman’s view of the ACS ===
James Lowman has been at the ACS for 10 years during which time he has had much input into the association’s activities. "In broad terms I believe we should focus on what we’re about as an organisation. Our core purpose is lobbying; we’re also about networking _ that’s where our Premier Club comes in; and the third area is advice and help, and we will be reviewing the services we currently offer. "One of the key issues we are dealing with at the moment is the Competition Commission (CC) inquiry into supermarkets. I still retain some optimism - I believe we can make great strides in proving market power, and I think we will force the CC to review its position on supplier issues. I think we’ve shown how market power is exerted at a local level; and we’ve started to show how the customer loses out."