I was guilty of panicking last weekend. By chance, at around tea time on the Sunday, I spotted an article on the BBC’s online news about an imminent blockade of the Stanlow oil refinery on Merseyside. Stanlow is the region’s Achilles heel and a favoured target for organised resistance to the seemingly inexorable rise in fuel prices. Activists were gathering at Birch Services on the M62, also at Llandudno, then driving slowly in convoy to the refinery. The aim was to cause traffic congestion on the busy route between Lancashire and North Wales, and ultimately to prevent petrol tankers from leaving the facility, by a peaceful blockade of the exit.
If this happened it would lead to shortages at the petrol pumps all over the North West – not simply because the tankers couldn’t get through, but because at the first hint of a problem with supply, there’s always a run on the pumps and the fuel that normally resides under the forecourts of garages is transferred within a matter of hours into the tanks of private vehicles. The petrol stations then close, and it takes about a week for things to get back to normal. In the mean time, if you’re out of fuel, you’re out of luck.
So, I set out at once, selfishly hoping I was ahead of the game and that news of the protests had yet to hit the national T.V. news, thus spooking everyone else into doing what I was doing myself. As it was, the petrol station was no busier than usual, so I filled up and drove home relieved. It was still open the following morning, with no signs of panic or shortages, but I still felt justified in my actions, because I’ve been caught out on previous occasions.
We’ve had seasons of fuel protests before, and it was inevitable, with fuel prices at an all time record high that it would happen again. The fuel protests are something of a double edged sword though. No motorist wants to pay the prices we’re currently paying, but when the more active road warriors among us actually make a stand and challenge the price with an organised blockade, or even the hint of a blockade, it causes everyone else a major headache, and we don’t know whether to curse or cheer.
If you can get away without using fuel, if you live within cycling distance of work, or you can use public transport, then you can take to the environmental high-ground and argue that fuel prices need to be even higher in order to discourage us eco-deniers from using our cars and killing the planet, and I have a lot of sympathy with that view. But equally if you’re in a line of work where you use a lot of fuel, say you’re a farmer or a road haulier, or even a company rep who spends a good deal of his time on the road, then you can’t avoid paying the price because there’s no alternative at the moment – no mythical electric wondercar, nor a drastically restructured public transport system.
If you’re a businessman, every extra penny you spend on a litre of fuel is going to eat into your profits, so you’ll pass that on to the consumer because you have to stay in business, so the consumer gets hit twice – paying more for his fuel to get to the supermarket, and more for the stuff he buys when he’s in there. And we’ve had more than a penny on fuel. Over the last five years fuel prices have gone up from around 85p per litre to around £1.40. Even yours truly, a humble commuter is now paying around 5% of his income on simply driving to and from the dayjob.
But who do you point the finger and grumble at?
Well, the poor old government is the most obvious target, because the price of petrol in the UK is comprised largely of taxation which goes into the government’s coffers. It’s also difficult to protest against the price of a barrel of crude oil because it’s not determined by any UK body, so there’s no obvious fat-cat to hurl clods at. So, taxation becomes the natural focus of resistance; I note the fuel protestors are currently demanding a reduction of 24p per litre.
But as if we all needed reminding, the country’s under a bit of a cloud at the moment, and the only way the caviar and the champagne can be kept flowing at the top of the economic foodchain is by eyewatering hikes in general taxation, along with the simultaneous and drastic cutting of government services – which roughly translated means making public servants redundant or pushing them into early retirement. If you take the tax off petrol, the money will have to come from somewhere else, either by taxing somewhere else, or by cutting spending and making even more people redundant.
Having said that, cutting the tax on fuel by 24p per litre would save me £450 a year, so I certainly have an interest in supporting the fuel protests because it’s a dog eat dog system and why should I care about anyone else? But the disruption fuel protests cause does more than inconvenience me, it threatens my ability to get to work, and for all the protests we’ve had in the past, the price of fuel has risen steadily, so I find myself stuck in the middle, without any clear answers and simply trying to respond to an alarming situation I have no control over.
I can’t cycle to work, because it’s too far, and no combination of public transport can get me there on time either. It would also be cheaper to stay in the Travelodge, within walking distance of the dayjob, than to rely on a combination of bus and train every day. And all that seems ridiculous, in a society brought up to rely on the car. So I drive.
So, yes, I went out and filled up old grumpy at the first hint of trouble. I was on the red line and if I hadn’t filled up, and there was a run on the pumps when the protests hit the six-oclock news, I knew I was screwed. I had fuel for a day, and experience told me it would be a week before things got back to normal, which meant I’d be booking time off work from my holiday quota, and I wanted to avoid that.
As it was the protest didn’t gather sufficient momentum. It didn’t hit the six o’clock national news, and the twittersphere informed me it was met at Stanlow with a sturdy police line and that the planned blockade fizzled out in the balmy spring air without a single tanker being inconvenienced.
But for all of that I’m thinking we’re in for a long season of protests this year. The rising price of fuel isn’t being matched by increases in people’s pay packets, so you reach a snapping point where there’s sufficient ire in people’s bellies for them to get out and do something. And we have something else now that we didn’t have in the earlier days of fuel protests. We have things like Facebook and Twitter that can organise people in sufficient numbers they can topple governments, so an effective refinery blockade should be easy.
Sitting strictly on the fence as always and trying to analyse both sides of the argument on fuel, my advice to UK motorists in 2011 is to keep one eye on the twittersphere for the latest rumours and the other on your fuel gauge, and never let it drop below what you think you’ll need for a week’s commute. That way you won’t need to panic when it all kicks off again, which it will, because I think last weekend was just the start.