Heading them off at the pass

Forecourt retailer Jonathan James proves you can win at least sometimes. There was, until recently, a hand car wash next to his Slade End site.

"It was right next door just 20ft away and sharing the same access road so all my customers had to drive past it," he says.

He called David Charman, chairman of the Car Wash Association (CWA) for help and describes the assistance he received as "invaluable".

Jonathan downloaded template letters from the CWA website and sent them off to the Environment Agency and the district council. "Someone from the Environment Agency visited the site a week later and ’gave advice’ to the operator."

The district council’s enforcement officer acknowledged his letter but said it could take a while to deal with due to being short staffed so Jonathan engaged a professional advisor (Julian Sutton from Signet Planning) to intervene.

"For a flat fee of £500 Signet put a very strong planning case together and within three days the enforcement officer attended the site," he adds.

"He gave them three options: either cease trading or apply for retrospective planning permission or prove that the operation had been happening there for the past 10 years. The landlord of the site had claimed that was the case but we were able to prove otherwise. And the enforcement office did make them take their temporary signs down while he was there."

Meanwhile, Jonathan came out fighting. "We slashed our prices in half and put posters all around the site to tell people.

"We got a massive vinyl sign made up to advertise on the wash screens ’top wash at £2.99’ and our staff all wore badges to tell customers. We also promoted the car wash at our other site in town. We put the promotion on our website and pushed our car wash club."

This was achieved over the course of just one month. In mid-December the hand wash operation was closed and it was dismantled the day before I spoke to Jonathan for this column.

He adds: "I think it was important that we acted quickly in order to ensure that the operator did not get a foothold and/or a customer base built up.

"He must have been disheartened to stand there with no customers while we had up to 10 cars waiting at any one time."

Not flowing smoothly

In theory you have followed the guidelines and the new E5 fuel should flow smoothly, then in practice it all goes pear-shaped with cars breaking down all over the place. This is beginning to look like a ’transitional’ problem, ie until everybody gets the water completely out of their systems forecourts, delivery tankers and cars on the road there will be expensive hiccups or nasty belches.

One dealer wrote to say that he had had two unleaded tanks cleaned and dried by contractors. He sold 1,500 litres of fuel the day after the clean with no issues whatsoever. Then he had a delivery the following afternoon followed by numerous complaints from customers about vehicles breaking down. He has insurance cover and customers will be reimbursed but he is left with thousands of litres of muddy contaminated fuel and a supplier in denial even though the retailer can obviously prove when the tanks were cleaned and when he took delivery.

Other dealers have contacted the news desk but almost no one wants to be quoted/identified.

Nor do the contractors. One I spoke to was pretty convinced that almost all ’wet fuel’ came courtesy of delivery tankers. He cited statistics from the PRA (as was) which showed that nearly all water in fuel on forecourts came via supplier tankers, which wasn’t an issue previously but is now because E5 is extremely water sensitive. Apparently when fuel tanker lorries get their MOTs they are filled with water as a sort of make-weight so inspectors can check the brakes and so on under realistic loads. Could it be they are not drained properly afterwards?

The contractor’s company did a trial recently involving some 700 tanks on forecourts with cleanly-supplied E5 and there was no problem. And he says that mainland Europe seems to be managing this blend okay.

As I said he, like almost everyone I have spoken to, wishes to remain anonymous. But this does sound as though it needs a big voice.

Time to appeal

You can still appeal your rates up until March 30 when the ratings list goes live. Petrol stations will be hit quite hard. Jonathan James, featured in my first story, has five sites in Cambridgeshire and is facing a physical cost of £20,000 for next year and probably £100,000 over the next five years. He has called in a ratings specialist.

Road ahead

No one can tell what the future holds but here’s something you should know.

Work is ongoing at Michigan State University and the Warsaw Institute of Technology into the wave-disk engine. It is said it will make today’s hybrid engines look positively primitive. It is also said to be five times more fuel efficient, 20% lighter and 30% cheaper to manufacture than traditional auto engines. The team working on it hopes to bring it to the market in two years time which will mean 500 miles on a tank of fuel. So, eventually, your volumes will go down. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.