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The Guardian (UK): Petrol Pat, we need you too

Local filling stations are as vital as post offices for community life – and disappearing much faster

Peter Preston
Monday August 20, 2007

There used to be one down the road and one up it when I moved to this house, plus a couple just at the bottom of the hill, one right and one left. But now there are none. Two of the old sites are blocks of flats, the others oscillate between doing very small temporary business and flytip heaven, but all are relics of times and communities past. Ah, surely we’re talking post offices, urban or rural, with another 2,500 doomed to close by Chancellor Darling in his previous ministerial life, BG (before Gordon)? Surely the Lib Dems and the Telegraph and numerous knights of the Tory shires will step in to stamp on the hitlist?

But no, wrong number. The vanished in this accounting go into liquidation with dry eyes all around. No Daily Mail feature writer grows gooey or outraged about their passing. No god of greenery thunders on their behalf. We’re talking petrol stations here. See? I thought you wouldn’t care.

And yet the numbers involved are truly jolting. Take just a few of them (and keep the post office comparison handy). Thirty-plus years ago, Britain had around 74,000 petrol stations. Now there are well under a seventh of that number, with closures running at some 600 a year. Go back to 1912 and count the forecourts then. There were more, not less. The holes or building sites at the end of your road aren’t random, but part of a pattern.

What’s happened? Several different things. One (a good thing) is rising fuel efficiency. We don’t need to fill up so often – and maybe the tax escalator is part of that small triumph. Another, less benign, is the curse of the burgeoning supermarket: fill your trolley, then fill your tank, cheap. The independents who still carry most of the rural burden can’t afford to buy their petrol at Tesco prices, let alone sell it. They have three or four members of staff to pay, but sales at half the national average or less can’t sustain such a wage bill. They have regulations to meet and storage tanks to renew. Anybody want to buy a brownfield site to build homes for Ms Cooper – or a derelict space to plaster with posters?

And they’re gone, blown away. It’s the end of their road, and nobody seems to care. Oil starts wars; it doesn’t start trouble on the streets or protest marches down leafy lanes. Indeed, we’re probably supposed to rejoice on the quiet as supposed giants of global disaster take a cold bath.

But in practice, of course, one thing fits with another. Sometimes – indeed, in the country villages near where I was born – the garage isn’t just a bare forecourt: it’s a shop and a post office, too. The man or woman on the cash desk or wielding a pump is the only sign of regular service life in sight. The desk where they sit and twiddle their thumbs is a crucial hub: not as cuddly as Postman Pat on his rounds, but just as vital.

Post offices? The network is still 14,000-strong, with 2,500 doomed to go for lack of government subsidy: but the rate of decline, some 4,000 branches in a decade, is still mild in filling-station terms, and the number of customers affected (as few as 70 a week in some villages) can be derisory. Petrol stations have to do much more trade than that, which is why so many double as rural post offices and newsagents and basic groceries. Knock away one of those props, however – or two, because the new Asda 10 miles away sells petrol as well – and there’s nothing left to hang on to.

The urban impact is bad enough. Have you tried to find a garage with a working air pump to test your tyres on recently? It’s curious how often they’re temporarily/permanently out of action. What was once a safety routine is now an irksome hunt. But in some of the more remote country areas (as a Scottish Office survey notes) you can be an hour’s drive from a decent-sized town. Do away with your local petrol station and that’s two hours (there and back) to fill up, with carbon emissions aplenty and no transport alternatives available. Tourism wilts; so does the practicality of country living – another Highland clearance.

Yet this blight doesn’t need Whitehall cash to put it right. This blight is the merest pimple on oil company profitability (£3.47bn for Shell in the first three months of this year, and counting). Forget windfalls: just ponder a tiny commercial subsidy to sustainable living. More stations don’t have to die. More outlets would prosper if company criteria for survival were eased. Saving the planet means saving communities: and, perverse though it seems, that means saving your local petrol pump too.

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