Double whammy on fuel prices as councils start to feel pinch

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CRIPPLING fuel price increases have hit private motorists in recent years, but few people realise they are being hit by a double whammy as local authorities also feel the financial pain.

An investigation by the Yorkshire Post has revealed taxpayers have to foot a multi-million pound bill on top of their domestic and commuting fuel costs as the price of filling up council fleets soars.

Figures released by authorities across the region show some have seen outlay on petrol and diesel more than double in a decade, outrunning inflation by a wide margin and placing pressure on staff managing services.

It has led to warnings the situation is becoming even less sustainable as budgets dwindle, and raised concerns further increases in duty and oil prices could lead to further council cuts.

Ann McIntosh MP is campaigning for a fuel tax discount for rural North Yorkshire – a drive which is supported by the Yorkshire Post’s Give Us a Fair Deal campaign.

“I believe that the figures are very revealing,” she said. “They speak for themselves and confirm the belief I have long held that rural areas are being impacted particularly hard by the high cost of fuel.

“In delivering public services, the cost in rural areas is already noticeably higher because of the longer distances the vehicles have to travel and the higher cost of fuel prices at the pumps. So, it is more expensive to deliver services such as school buses, refuse collection and disposal and care services. In short, every aspect of public service delivery costs more in rural areas.

“While the decision not to increase pump prices by 3p on August 1 is welcome, the Government must consider what the impact of any future increase will be on rural areas like Thirsk, Malton and Filey.”

The two councils which cover much of Ms McIntosh’s constituency, Hambleton and Ryedale, are among the smallest authorities in the region but have suffered some of the biggest increases in fuel bills.

In Hambleton, the cost of fuelling council vehicles has gone up by 118 per cent in 10 years while in Ryedale the increase is 124 per cent. Both authorities are struggling to make huge budget cuts.

A study by the Local Government Association (LGA) showed that nationwide, local authorities had spent an extra £20m on fuel in the 12 months to March 2011.

The LGA estimate the money would have kept open about 80 libraries or 100 indoor sports centres open which have since succumbed to local authority cuts, or funded the salaries of 1,250 care workers.

Research also found that many councils had invested in money-saving initiatives, such as fuel-efficient lorries, route-planning technology and electric vehicles, but had found that rising fuel prices had wiped out the projected savings.

The LGA said councils bought their fuel in bulk to get cheaper prices and often used market forecasting to buy more when prices were relatively low. Others operate in regional consortiums to secure bulk deals. But despite these efforts authorities had seen a price rise of 20p per litre in 12 months.

Coun Peter Box, Wakefield Council leader and chairman of the LGA’s economy and transport board, said: “Unallocated reserves are crucial to helping councils manage budgets at a time of financial constraint. Authorities are striving to keep delivering vital frontline services like adult social care, child protection and refuse collection while making tough decisions about closing libraries and cutting staff.

“To have to spend millions of pounds worth of savings on fuel is very frustrating. This money is not limitless and can only be spent once. If fuel prices continue to spiral, councils could cut deep into money which is supposed to be a buffer to fall back on in hard times.”

Comment: Page 16.

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