Jenny Dunn: Fuel price rise pose a threat to rural life

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YOU probably won’t have missed that last week the rising cost of motor fuel was the topic for a backbench debate in the House of Commons. It was inspired by Robert Halfon and FairFuel UK’s campaign for cheaper petrol and diesel, which included a trendy Government e-petition that generated more than 120,000 signatures.

The debate stirred up quite a furore in the Westminster village. Not, sadly, over the soaring price of petrol; but instead over the political implications of the Government employing a three-line whip to keep rebellious backbenchers from supporting a slash in fuel duty; a move it was feared would affect deficit-reduction plans.

In the end the Government saw sense and let MPs vote with their conscience. At the end of the debate, MPs from all parties overwhelmingly backed a motion to scrap the planned 3p rise in fuel duty scheduled from January.

Since the beginning of the year, petrol prices at the pump have risen by seven per cent – two per cent above the current rate of inflation. The effects of a heavy fuel burden, which are felt up and down the country, cannot be overstated. The soaring price of fuel seriously limits the ability of people to access education, employment and essential services.

However with rural communities having to travel up to 10,000 miles (or 43 per cent) more than people living in urban areas to access essential services, the price of fuel is a far heavier burden on countryside householders.

Research released by the Countryside Alliance shows that on average people living in rural Local Authorities will pay £67.45 this month on fuel for their monthly commute – a massive £16.50 (or 24 per cent) more than the average spend on fuel each month in urban local authorities.

The top 10 local authorities for the cheapest monthly fuel costs are all classed as urban councils – while nine out of the 10 council areas that have the most expensive monthly fuel costs are classed as rural.

Yorkshire is no exception to the rule. Based on the average distance to work, people living in urban areas like Bradford, Leeds, Hull and York will not pay more than £60 a month in fuel costs. Indeed in Bradford the average commute to work will cost £42 a month, while people living in York will pay £57 a month.

In contrast, rural areas like the East Riding of Yorkshire, Harrogate, Richmondshire and Selby people are likely to pay over £68 a month for the average commute. In Selby for example, the average commute costs £80 a month – almost double the cost in Bradford.

Back in the March Budget, the Chancellor took steps to lower the price of petrol by cutting 1p from fuel duty and postponing a 4p inflation-linked rise.

However the cost of fuel at the pump has not let up, and the planned 3p rise in fuel duty coming in the New Year would slap an extra £1.50 on the cost of filling the average petrol tank.

Such a rise would squeeze people’s already strained monthly budgets to breaking point. That is why we are calling on the Chancellor to remember people up and down the country who rely on cars for their lives and livelihoods, and urge him to scrap the planned increase.

Opposition to cancelling the rise in fuel duty will inevitably boil down to two arguments. The first is the ‘green’ argument which goes that the car is relied too heavily upon and people should use other methods of transport when going about their day-to-day business. Secondly, that when the Government is undertaking a deficit reduction programme scrapping increases in fuel tax is not affordable.

Both of these arguments are fair but refutable. The idea that the car is a luxury, used when there are assortments of public transport alternatives available, is only really true in places like Westminster; which incidentally is where the decisions to tax car use are made. Outside built-up urban areas, public transport networks are very sparse and will become even more so once national and local spending cuts start to bite.

Also, drivers contribute billions of pounds to the Government coffers in taxes every single year, and pushing taxes up further as a means to plug the fiscal gap will cause people to make some very difficult choices in regards to how they spend their money.

This will not help bring down the deficit or make the lives of people across the country any easier in already difficult times. At the Countryside Alliance, our fear is for the future survival of Britain’s rural communities. The price of fuel is making living in the countryside unaffordable to all but the wealthiest and threatens the future of many rural businesses. In places where the car is a necessity rather than a luxury, the continued rise in fuel costs could cause untold damage.