On a swelteringly hot day at the end of June, the inhabitants of Harleston, Norfolk, were presented with a great community asset in the form of a fabulous new forecourt and convenience store, developed by Lawrences Garages (London) Ltd.
The official opening of the £1.25m redevelopment now known as Lawrences Budgens was undertaken by a trio of well-known and respected ladies from Harleston (together with a fund-raising pink tractor) and included the company’s former forecourt assistant Marjorie Coleman, aged 84, who retired when the old site it replaced was demolished in March.
It is the family company’s biggest new development, and had taken around 18 months and a fair amount of aggravation to get the project completed. But after a 16-week closure, the locals, who had been keeping a keen eye on its progress, were able to get a close look at this shiny new operation, glinting from every angle in the bright sunshine. They were especially relieved to see the Budgens store open its doors in the locality again, since the East of England Co-op took over the town’s former Budgens store.
"I am absolutely proud of the new shop and petrol station," stresses managing director Andrew Lawrence, who runs the business with his brother Simon and son Ben. "Volumes are already back to where they were before closing and the shop has doubled sales. We’re very pleased with the Budgens brand and what it’s delivered for the town, because people are talking about it. We’re actually picking up a lot of Budgens customers because they’ve missed the old store in Harleston, and it was always respected in the town.
"The nearest petrol station is about 10 miles away, so we’re not just serving this village but a lot of neighbouring villages. When the site was being redeveloped there was a lot of upset from people, who were wondering where they were going to get their fuel from. There was constant noise about when we were going to be open.
"It has taken a good year-and-a-half of planning for us to get to this point, but it’s been worth it. We built it to a high spec, and used the best contractors we could find, so that we can hand something over to the next generation."
His comments were backed by Ben, now the fifth generation of Lawrences running the business since great grandfather Arthur George Lawrence started selling fuel back in 1919. "We feel proud having spent a lot of time and capital in developing this new facility for Harleston, which will continue to serve the community for many years," he adds.
The site features new double-skin tanks with a state-of-the-art monitoring system, a new Washtec rollover car wash, 12 parking bays and ground work for future electric charging points. It also features the latest Esso Synergy branding. The new Budgens shop measures 1,800sq ft, and includes refrigeration designed with heat reclaim, and LED lighting throughout.
The site was acquired by the Lawrences 20 years ago, and according to Andrew was well overdue for redevelopment, based as it was on an old traditional site which had featured a workshop in its time: "It was falling to bits," explains Andrew. "Maintenance costs were high, and we were very aware of the age of the tanks; plus the car wash was also reaching the end of its life.
"We started to put the plans into place in mid-2016, anticipating an eight-month run-in, so we could start work in January 2017. But we had a delay of more than six months because the Environment Agency (EA) wanted us to have overground tanks. The Petroleum Licensing Authorities said no way, so we were jammed between two agencies. But there was just no room anyway to have them above ground.
"In fact I have to say that the PRA has been fantastic in their support for us while we were going through this situation. We had to spend many thousands on surveys and so on to get the tanks agreed by the EA and the delays were considerable. Amazingly the tanks we removed made of steel and built 40 years ago were still in perfect order."
Car washing is a key part of the business, alongside the shop and forecourt across the company’s sites. It currently owns and operates three sites, with a further two leased to Applegreen. So at Harleston a new Washtec machine takes pride of place, complementing the forecourt and store. But a re-routing to the car wash entrance around the back of the store was required to free up space to add more parking on the forecourt.
And while no electric chargers are yet in sight, the cabling is installed, waiting in the wings.
"We’ve tried to give ourselves as much chance as is possible in the future," comments Simon. "The more you prepare, the luckier you are! The world is moving extremely quickly and you have to have an open mind about what the future holds.
"Our strategy is to operate sites within a community, which is rather key because, as we’ve been seeing in the past 10 years, petrol is not going to be with us forever, so we have to be within striking distance of chimney pots; and have the chance to develop our business accordingly when carbon fuelled vehicles are in decline."