Government proposals to extend its fuel discount scheme to more isolated rural areas have been described as “too little too late” by the Rural Shops Alliance (RSA), which represents 7,500 rural retailers.

Noting that the number of filling stations in the UK has declined from 37,500 in 1970 to less than 9,000 today, the RSA said the issues facing rural filling stations had been ignored by successive governments.

It said rural filling stations were under pressure because of low margins on fuel, the high cost of complying with safety requirements, and competition from supermarkets.

It said: “Although the proposed scheme has to be welcomed as at least recognising the problem, it is obviously too little too late to have any significant impact on the availability of fuel in mainland England. Quite simply, there are very few genuinely rural petrol stations left, with those that do remain tending to be large forecourts primarily serving the passing long-distance motorist on the trunk road network.”

It also attacked the proposal to restrict the scheme to six counties in England saying it would generate anomalies. For instance, Devon is one of the counties being considered, but the very rural parts of Somerset, such as Exmoor, just over the county border, are not being considered.

It said this could lead to a situation where a large profitable petrol station on a main road in one county was given government support to charge five pence a litre less, while a smaller independent competitor a couple of miles away serving a community in an adjacent county would be further disadvantaged.

RSA chief executive Ken Parsons commented: “Successive governments have allowed the large supermarket chains to use very cheap fuel prices, cross subsidised from the profits made in their stores, to attract customers. At the same time, the large fuel companies have sat back and seen their other outlets wither away, leaving them dependent on very few key customers to maintain their volume.

“The proposed government scheme is some help but restricted by county makes no sense at all. Those most in need of support are the smaller independent forecourts, with relatively low throughputs, distant from a fuel depot, far from other forecourts and off the main road network – all factors that make them expensive to supply.

“Although administratively more difficult than using county boundaries, the government should aim to extend this scheme across the country, but targeted at the remaining small petrol forecourts that do actually need the support.”