Driving up crime

Adrian Walker has added his voice to the argument against government moves to downgrade drive-offs to a civil matter unless they are ‘aggravated’. “The only way I can see it being aggravated is if I try to stop the car leaving, so if I get run over I guess they will investigate,” he emailed. Until now he had enjoyed a good relationship with Nottingham police, the station is only two miles away and officers regularly dropped in for snacks. But he clearly thinks the law is now an ass. “Surely then I can walk into Curry’s, pick up a DVD player and walk out, forgetting I have to pay? Or if I get stopped for speeding say I forgot the speed limit?”

I would add my own argument to this. Whatever happened to the idea that ignorance of a law was no excuse, let alone deliberately flouting it? “If you have to prove it’s a crime yourself,” asks Adrian, “what’s the point of having police?” And he wonders: “If I put a sticker on every pump saying something like ‘Please pay the cashier before leaving these premises. Failure to do so will be considered deliberate theft’, would this mean the police would have to investigate?”

We swapped emails about taking the law into one’s own hands. He used to stand at the exit with a metal stick normally used to lift tank covers. He would smash windscreens. You know what’s coming don’t you? The police told him to stop... I urge all retailers to complain to their MPs about this and tell them to tell that Hazel Blears person. She’s responsible and I’m sure she knows an awful lot about running forecourts.

Scotland is over-rated

Just ask Scottish forecourt operators. Craig Maltman, who runs Eyemouth Filling Station, at Eyemouth in Berwickshire, says that his rateable value has gone up from £14K to £30K. Even worse was the news that £27.5K of this was based on the shop. “They’ve worked it out on 4% of the shop’s turnover,” says Craig.

He theorises that, because the first 2.5 million litres of petrol are not included in the equation (the authorities recognising to some extent that forecourts don’t make much on petrol) they are now making up the difference by upping the percentage on the shop’s turnover. “Scottish Borders Council keeps saying to me, why are you the only one complaining?” adds Craig. “I think it’s because retailers don’t realise that their rateable values are going up on the shop.” He has discovered that in Scotland retailers are paying three times more in rates than the average c-store in the rest of the country. He has taken the problem to the PRA whose director Ray Holloway believes Scottish forecourts are ‘over-rated’. He has organised a consultant to visit Craig’s shop to evaluate it and hopes to then take it further.

Meanwhile, Scottish retailers have until September 30 to get their appeals in, unlike England where, under a recently-unveiled system, businesses can appeal against their rateable values at any time during the five-year life of the rating list (currently April 1, 2005 till March 31, 2010). So the clarion call to Scotland is: get your skates on and appeal NOW. If enough of you make a racket, perhaps the system will be reviewed.

And if you feel you need professional help, call the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) business rates helpline on 0870 333 1600. RICS will give you a free consultation on the phone and they tell me that they can advise on Scottish rates as well as English.

Lottery loser

Camelot’s recent efforts to maximise access to the National Lottery games has cut no ice with John Owens who runs Fence Houses Service Station in the village of the same name in County Durham.

John has had the lottery in his small forecourt store since the game was first launched and has always done very well with it. In fact he estimates that he has earned Camelot £100K for good causes and he has one of their silver awards for his store’s performance.

But now Camelot is set to install a terminal in an independent supermarket that is six times the size of John’s shop. The supermarket trades immediately opposite the forecourt. John can see no sense in this. “We’re doing £4,000 a week in lottery sales, four times the minimum now required by Camelot. If this is cut in half then I’ll have to lose a member of staff – so I’ve told them to come and take my terminal out. I know this is cutting off my nose to spite my face but I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back. We helped to build this empire. And Camelot won’t get any more trade as I’m open from 8am to 8pm seven days a week.”

A spokesman told me Camelot already has over 26,000 lottery retailers and that 94% of the UK population either live or work within half a mile of a lottery terminal. In the past two years there have been over 1,400 new terminals installed with the split being 60/40 in favour of independents. However, there are tens of thousands of independent businesses while supermarkets struggle to get into four figures. Camelot’s latest selection process has removed the typical waiting time for a terminal – it now reviews its entire retail estate every 12 weeks. This is good news for some, but not all – and not for John.