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Editorial - Fuel Crisis? (Sep2002)

So it’s all over bar the shouting - and re-filling the petrol stations of course. There are never great victories or immediate sweeping changes as a result of confrontations like this, the immediate result is nearly always a withdrawal by both sides, bruised but hopefully much wiser.  Now only time will tell whether it was all worth it - but I certainly hope it will turn out to be so.  Perhaps it’s time to re-consider what it was all about and to ask was it worth the hassle? 

There are two quite different price issues - one about the high cost of fuel in Britain compared with the rest of Europe and one about the endlessly escalating cost of simply being mobile.

So the first of the main grumbles is that fuel is so expensive here compared with our European cousins.  This is undoubtedly true but is actually quite difficult to measure - should we simply look at how many pound notes we need to change to fill our tanks or should we relate the price of a litre to the average wage for instance?  In practice it must surely be the simple currency conversion that is of importance even though it is complicated by European currency exchange rates.  Why? - well because this is not just about our holiday petrol it affects businesses and the economy as well as individuals.

Let me give you one example - I have a customer who runs a medium size haulage business, he runs trucks in the UK and in Europe, on long hauls his major cost is fuel and he is now having to compete with European haulage companies for much of the business.  How can he compete when Belgian truckers pay 42.6 p per litre for diesel while he pays about 80p?!  So without major fuel price changes what are the options?  - his customers could pay him more than they would a foreign company and our cost of living goes up (all our goods are delivered using diesel) - he can lose part of the business to foreign competition with a loss of British jobs and prosperity - or he can move half his business overseas to take advantage of the lower European prices, again with a loss of British jobs and prosperity.  Not much of a choice for US is it?  And not the ‘level playing field’ much talked about when we want to get the Europeans to change something for our benefit!

I know there’s a compelling case for increasing fuel prices to put pressure on greater fuel economy for environmental reasons and I support it - up to a point.  BUT there’s no point jumping off a cliff saying “I’ve saved the planet” if your neighbours are still there using cheaper fuel and saying “what a wally!”  We have to move forward together with such a grand plan, not necessarily all being the same, but at least playing in the same league.

There were of course widespread protests in Europe, not just in Britain, so there’s a second issue here too and that is the crippling rate of increase in fuel prices at a time when inflation and wage rises are generally very low.  This effect is being felt throughout Europe whether we start with 40p or 80p.  But why should we worry here in Britain about what’s happening in France or Belgium or Germany?   We should be concerned because if their protests are heard as seems likely at least in France, the differential will become even greater and our economy will suffer even more as a result of losing great chunks of our haulage infrastructure to European companies.  We’ve already lost most of our manufacturing base surely we’re not going to give away our import/export infrastructure too?

Europe aside, many of us feel that we are paying too much too quickly and would like to see equal effort applied elsewhere to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.  Without wishing to enter into a whole new debate here, what about - waste incinerator plants for city heating - unnecessary all night road lighting - wave power - insulation grants - even minister’s Jags?  There’s not much sign of any government urgency on these issues, is there?  I could go on and on - but I’ll spare you that.

There’s a real political cost too, I’m not taking up any particular political cudgel but I seem to remember that politicians who cease to listen to their electorate are doomed - we all know what happened over the poll tax and to the ‘lady who was not for turning’!  The PM’s own Website has a forum area with the slogan “for the many not the few”.  He should check out www.sky.com/news where their survey revealed 92% in favour of the government backing down and 85.7% supporting the blockades - the many have spoken!

Nor are we as nave and uninformed as `politicians seem to think, we are fully aware of the OPEC effect and of the fact that it is British taxation that produces the great differential between Europe and ourselves.  So what we want from Mr Blair is not some carefully planned ‘spin’ put on minimal action but a real response to the views expressed by the majority of the British people and preferably announced within the 60 days now proposed by the protesters. 

‘Real response’ means a plan to bring us into line with the European G7 nations - that means unleaded at less than 70p and diesel at around 50p - so come on Tony, let’s see some real action in place of the spin.

In the meantime, lads - well done, well executed and brilliant timing for the suspension for 60 days.



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