SENIOR figures at two Yorkshire-based chambers of commerce have called for Government action to halt the decline of rural petrol stations.
According to Rory Clarke, the managing director of Hull-based fuel company Rix Petroleum, the number of petrol stations in the UK has fallen to its lowest level since the First World War.
Mr Clarke believes a rebate would help owners of rural petrol stations who are fighting to keep their business open.
Susie Cawood, the head of York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said a planned scheme to help businesses obtain petrol and diesel on remote Scottish islands should spread to parts of North Yorkshire.
Mr Clarke said: “At one time there were 30,000 petrol stations in the UK, today there are between 7,500 and 8,000.
“There were 22,000 as recently as the late 1980s. Supermarkets have become destination filling points.”
He said that, because of the associated costs, the average retail margin for a litre of petrol was about 4p. He added: “If you don’t have a shop it’s not a viable business. Where the independents are left, they have to charge a higher price. The people who really struggle as a result of this live in the countryside.
“They have fixed incomes and live a long way from the supermarket. We have 75 petrol stations, at one time we had 200.”
Rix Petroleum turned over £350m in the last financial year, an increase on the £266m recorded the year before.
It is the largest of the J R Rix & Sons group of companies, which include ship builders and caravan manufacturers. The company operates from 17 bases in England and Scotland.
Ms Clarke added: “I guess the best way (to help rural petrol stations) would be if those sites were able to claim some sort of rebate of the fuel duty against the volume sold at the site.”
Ms Cawood added: “Soaring petrol prices are a significant problem in North Yorkshire and threatens the county’s refuelling network.
“More must be done to stop the rise in fuel prices, otherwise more rural petrol stations will close and the local economy will suffer.
“Rural businesses often have longer to travel than their urban counterparts and public transport is limited, therefore car travel is essential.
“The Government has proposed a pilot scheme that will deliver a maximum of 5p per litre duty discount on petrol and diesel in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Northern Isles, and the Isles of Scilly.
“The chamber would like to see this scheme extended to parts of North Yorkshire to help improve connectivity for our rural businesses”.
Howard O’Neill, the president of Hull & Humber Chamber of Commerce, added: “The high cost of fuel is crippling for business. Choice and availability are crucial, so the decline of independent filling stations is a big concern.
“Rural communities need access to services like this to be viable locations for business.”
He said the Government should be looking at ways of supporting independent retailers in its Plan for Growth. The next phase of the Plan for Growth aims to revive the UK economy by improving the UK’s skills base, and helping to boost activity in the rural economy.
According to the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, this review will scrutinise the constraints, opportunities and risks affecting economic growth in rural areas.
Richard Dodd, from the British Retail Consortium, said: “Competition works in the interests of customers. At a time when household budgets are being squeezed by rising costs and falling disposable incomes, supermarkets deserve praise for offering customers the best value they can on petrol, just as they do on many other products. If there’s enough demand for petrol in a given location to make a business viable a provider, supermarket or other, will be there to supply it.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment.
Keeping the fleet running
HUll-based Rix Petroleum has made detailed plans to ensure customers are supplied with petrol this winter. The company has spent thousands of pounds equipping its fleet of tankers with winter tyres.
Rory Clarke, the managing director of Rix Petroleum, which has 500 staff, said: “The bad weather of last year had a big impact on our business. The drivers went to every single filling station. We had guys who hitchhiked 15 miles to get to work.”