A new unpleasant routine has begun at Bilal Naeem’s petrol station in sleepy Datchet, Berkshire. Almost every day someone will pull up, fill up and screech away without paying. “The crime rate has been incredible since fuel prices went up,” says Naeem, wincing. “A customer showed me a post on a local Facebook group telling people they only get a £50 fine for driving away without paying. That’s 50 quid of free petrol now.” One theft can wipe out his fuel profits for the day, he says.
Thefts at petrol stations have become an increasingly common sight in recent weeks amid record petrol and diesel prices. The mundane ritual of filling up has become a source of anger and frustration for drivers as the bright red neon price figures rapidly tick up by the side of the road. Refuelling an average family car now costs more than £100.
Naeem’s filling station is a few miles from Staines, which has one of the highest price differentials between neighbouring sites in the south of England. Data from PetrolPrices.com shows there’s an 11p-a-litre spread between the cheapest and most expensive stations.
The government has pledged to target “rip-off” petrol stations. Retailers have been accused of profiteering and not passing on a 5p a litre cut to fuel duty announced in March’s spring statement. After a request from the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Competition and Markets Authority has launched a “short and focused” review of the sector, due to report on 7 July.
For their part, retailers have blamed the weakening of the pound against the dollar, rising oil prices and record margins pocketed by in-demand refineries for the price rises.
Naeem is not impressed with suggestions of profiteering. He stabs at his smartphone calculator as we run through the costs of the 194p-a-litre diesel: 159.1p for the wholesale fuel, then 31.8p extra in VAT. “I’m usually making 2p/3p a litre. Do you think I’m robbing them?”
After a midnight price update, his diesel is now nudging the brutal £2 mark at 198.9p a litre, with unleaded at 192.9p.
At the Shell garage around the corner from Staines train station, experienced supervisor Yoga Saba looks out on to a sparse forecourt where a lone Toyota is being refilled. “It’s definitely quieter at the moment,” he says. “And normally customers come and top up with £10 of fuel. Now we’re see people pay £5 or even £3.” Here diesel is 195.9p and unleaded 186.9p.
As we chat over the counter, Wiktor Bednarski pulls up in his gleaming white tanker, which carries about 37,000 litre of fuel. He typically supplies the whole lot to one station, but is increasingly splitting smaller deliveries between two. Bednarski, who works for the logistics firm Hoyer Group, says it has become tricky even getting into some stations. “People started panic buying a few weeks ago. I struggled to get access to a petrol station in north London. I couldn’t leave the vehicle unattended, so had to shout to get the cars to move aside so I could bring them the fuel.”
He adds: “People keep asking me about the prices, but it’s a global market. It’s affecting everyone. People still have to go to school and their jobs. So they have to buy petrol. It’s good in a way that the government is trying to do something, if anyone is taking advantage of all this, that’s shameful.”
Across town, the forecourt at the mini Asda petrol station is bustling and you can see why: diesel is 190.7p a litre, petrol 182.7p. There have been suggestions that Asda – once renowned as the price leader on fuel – has stepped back from its cut-price promotions. But sales assistant Rishu Rajput appears confident that Asda remains the cheapest in Staines. “People know we’re the cheapest,” she says around the Covid screen on the counter. “People check the prices, and we’re definitely cheaper than Sainsbury’s up the road.” A swing over to its rival confirms this: diesel is 191.9p and petrol 182.9p. “We look at the prices closely and usually come here,” says one Asda shopper.
At Esso (196.9p diesel, 185.9p unleaded), an employee says the grocers remain king in this town. “At the supermarket, it’s cheaper. But people understand that everything costs more at a petrol station on a busy road. Look at that Coke,” he says, pointing at the rammed shelves. “That’s £1.29 here and 85p in the supermarket. And all the prices are going up too.”
In Datchet, Naeem says his efforts are now focused on selling food and drink from the shop. He echoes the call of motoring groups for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to step in and cut fuel duty. “They need to cut duty again. At these prices, people cannot afford it. If they cannot fill up, they cannot go to work.”
A filling station with a view
“We’re trying to be fair and reasonable to our customers while making a margin that keeps our head above water,” says Lynn Hunter, who sells petrol on the island of Islay with her husband, Tom.
The Hunters run the combined post office, shop and filling station in the village of Port Charlotte on the picturesque island off the west coast of Scotland. Drivers stopping by to fill up are treated to a more eye-catching view than most roadside stops, with the midnight blue waters of Loch Indaal stretching across the horizon.
A shipment of fuel comes on the two-hour ferry once a week to supply the five single-pump filling stations on the large island.
In recent weeks, the Hunters have been grappling with whether to pass on the spike in wholesale fuel costs to loyal customers. “We are doing everything we possibly can to keep the cost down for our fellow villagers,” says Lynn. Tom says when a new order arrives at a higher price, the store keeps selling at the previous price until its relatively small tanks have emptied of the fuel bought at the previous price.
Lynn pokes her head out of the store during our interview to check the pump price, which informs passing motorists that a litre of diesel will set them back 186.9p while petrol is 188.9p. Their costs have jumped by around 30p in just over a month.
The couple moved from Falkirk with their adult children four years ago to live above and run the small store. Lynn works part time for a large consultancy and runs the shop with Tom, a former HGV driver. Their varied clientele include those dropping in to fill up tractors and quad bikes.
The pair believe their customers are more resilient than most as they are used to tricky logistics making basic staples scarcer and more expensive on the island.
But they weren’t impressed by claims that many petrol retailers have been profiteering during the energy crisis. “The problem is everyone gets tarred with the same brush. There will be some stations that sell in a day what we do in a year. It’s like comparing a cabbage and an orange,” says Lynn.
Tom adds: “There are mainland motorway petrol stations where they should wear a mask and carry a couple of pistols because they’re robbing people. But people are a law unto themselves and can be too lazy or stupid to go off the motorway to look for cheaper fuel too.”