Petrol Prices (Wyre Forest)
Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest, Conservative)
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. In Wyre Forest, the pricing policy of a local, independent retailer is to make a 3p per litre profit on the cost at which they buy their petrol and diesel. That is interesting, because for a great period, that retailer was substantially undercutting big chain retailers, and as a result, I recommended that my constituents visited it, because it provided the best deal. However, when I checked its price again, that retailer is now 3p or 4p more expensive. The big chain retailers are almost certainly buying wholesale fuel from the same wholesale outlet, and they are probably paying the same amount for that fuel. Therefore, if Callow Oils is still adopting its pricing policy of 3p more per litre, it would indicate that the big chains are running at a loss. It would be interesting to find out more—if the retailers answered my telephone calls, I could find out. I think, however, that the big retailers may well be working at a loss to stimulate local demand.
With fewer retailers in a specific area, there is a greater demand against available supply than would be seen in bigger conurbations, so the price is inevitably higher. In this instance, local factors push the price along the price/demand curve against consumer interests. It is important for big retail chains to have such areas of high pricing. If they are to ensure a sustainable average price of fuel across the whole marketplace—across the whole country—they must ensure that areas of low pricing, such as cities, are balanced by areas of high pricing. That penalises rural regions in favour of urban areas, which is very unfair, as I think we would all agree.
If someone lives in Birmingham, London, Cardiff, or any other city, they will have easy access to far more efficient local public transport infrastructures. The availability of a sensible local public transport service also provides competition to petrol retailers; they are competing not only against each other for customers, but against local public transport. However, if someone lives in a rural or semi-rural area, such as Wyre Forest, their local public transport is neither as accessible nor as user-friendly. They will need to use their own car far more than their urban-based cousin. They will have little practical choice, and will have to buy fuel to run their car. That lack of choice helps drive up local fuel prices, doubly penalising the high-mileage rural commuter.
What am I trying to achieve with this morning’s debate? First, I want yet again to highlight the inequity of the pricing policies of big supermarkets and fuel retailers. We all know about that issue, and many of my colleagues raise it again and again. This is another push in the effort to get big retail chains to heed the plight of rural consumers. People living in rural communities should not be used to subsidise the fuel bills of town and city dwellers.
Secondly, I want to appeal to the retail chains to adopt a more pragmatic pricing policy. I accept that a national pricing policy would probably not work, but using a rigid three-mile radius is probably too tight in certain areas. I would like to see a pricing policy that never allows a district to become isolated within its own pricing area. A pricing link that jumps significant gaps is needed. That can be achieved either by having a larger radius across the country, or by having a radius that takes regional petrol station density into account.
As I mentioned, the OFT last week announced its investigation, which I welcome. It will look at a range of areas. The fact that prices go up pretty quickly with oil price rises but are rather slow to come down is a key concern, but I am particularly keen for that investigation also to look into regionalised price anomalies.
I am grateful to the Minister for his time and attendance this morning. As a free marketer, I am reluctant to ask him to legislate on fuel price equalisation across regions. Fair competition must be the answer, and if the competition turns out to be unfair, or evidence emerges of local cartels, I sincerely hope that the OFT will uncover that and deal with it appropriately. The experience in Wyre Forest, where it appears that local pressure has brought the reward of better local pricing, suggests that retail chains might listen, even if they are reluctant to get together for a meeting—notwithstanding Tesco. Sainsbury’s, take note.
The Minister, of course, has a far louder voice than I or many of my Back-Bench colleagues, and I appeal to him to use every opportunity at his disposal to give petrol retailers a regular prod to ensure that the plight of rural dwellers is taken into account.