On September 23 Scottish retailer Jean Allardyce will go before her local licensing board to fight to retain the alcohol licence at her forecourt. And despite 30 years in the business, she believes this will be one of her hardest fights yet. And worryingly, it’s one she says many of her fellow retailers in the area have already given up on.
Jean started working at the rural site - Bridgend Garage, in the village of Auchinleck, near Glasgow - as a petrol pump attendant when she was at school, and later married the owner’s son, Tom. Her local licensing committee will shortly decide whether the business meets the criteria to be able to continue to sell alcohol.
Due to new legislation planned for Scotland in a year’s time, businesses will not be able to sell alcohol if they sell fuel or cars. Under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, the only exception is if the "licensing board decides they fall under section 123(5) of the 2005 Act, which allows a premises which serves a wider local function or is a required community resource to continue to hold an alcohol licence".
Jean says: "I’m really angry about this law. I understand the need to curb the youth drinking and binge drinking culture, but I fail to see why forecourts should be singled out. Why are we being victimised in this?
"Why is it just this segment? Convenience stores, off-licences and supermarkets - many of which sell alcohol in a separate building to their forecourt shop, but it’s still on the same premises as far as I’m concerned - don’t have to go through this. I just feel it’s another step back for the independent retailer in the fight against the supermarkets."
Bridgend Garage has seen many changes since it started trading. Opened by Tom’s parents in 1947 as an engineering works and filling station, it started with the Power brand, which evolved into Esso - which the forecourt still sells today. The site has had to adapt to its surroundings - it was hit when the open-cast mining in the area closed down in the 1980s, and the resulting job losses in the village meant people moved away in their droves. But the more recent regeneration of the area has seen things slowly changing, and the completion of improvements to the main road to Glasgow has extended the commuter belt out to this part of rural West Scotland.
There are two parts to the company, the forecourt side, run by Jean, and a vehicle salvage business, which is mainly looked after by Tom. The salvage yard takes crashed cars from all over the region - it usually houses at least 500 wrecks at any one time. The Allardyces have 39 staff, with about 16 of these employed on the forecourt side. In 2000 they redeveloped and extended the shop, teaming up with Spar and adding new features, including the popular off-licence area.
And even though a Tesco supermarket opened its doors in the village about eight years ago, this only increased fuel sales.
Jean says: "It’s been a challenge and we’ve had to continually evolve just to keep ahead. Our business is now less grocery and more tobacco and news, with about 10% of our sales coming from alcohol. When Tesco opened we immediately saw our fuel volume increase by 5% and that’s been maintained ever since. Luckily Tesco doesn’t have a forecourt, but the fact that people go there to do their shopping increases our footfall."
The site is open 24/7, a move Jean and Tom decided on as a security measure after the site kept getting broken into at night. Its main customers are people who live in the nearby villages as well as Glasgow commuters and passing HGV drivers. It sells about 6mlpa of fuel and most of the site’s alcohol sales are wine and beer sold in the evening between 8pm - when the local Tesco shuts - and before 10pm when the site closes off its alcohol section.
Jean believes she’s going to have "a jolly good fight" on her hands to retain the site’s licence, especially as there are a number of off-licences in the village which are also open until 10pm.
She says: "It’s a costly and complicated business to prepare the application for the licence and to go before the panel. You have to submit all kinds of documents, premises plans etc, so it’s far from an easy process. Some of the dealers I’ve spoken to recently seem to have just given up. They don’t think there’s any point in even trying to keep their licence.
"If we lose our licence, we don’t know what we’re going to do to fill that part of the shop. I’m worried we’ll lose those customers completely who come in for a bottle of wine in the evenings, and all the associated goods that go with the alcohol such as crisps. I guess we’ll just have to evolve again.
"But I do think that with margins dwindling, this could be the final nail in the coffin for many of the smaller independent retailers. It will be interesting to see how many dealers will think it’s time to go."
=== The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 ===
Under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, forecourts will not be able to sell alcohol if they sell fuel or cars, and can have their licence removed.
Primary use - ie that the shop is a bigger part of the business than the car-orientated business - has no influence on the disqualification.
The ’big bang’, or compliance date and time is 5am on September 1, 2009.
In December 2006 there were 190 licensed forecourts in Scotland.