Country & Garden: The rural heart stops pumping

When a petrol station closes in a country village, the community loses much more than just a fuel supply.
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The Independent Culture
BRIAN FINNEGAN is an unlikely kind of saviour. A slight, softly spoken man with a strong Birmingham accent, he arrived in the Devon village of Colaton Raleigh early this year. He bought the site of the petrol station, which had long fallen into disrepair, moved into the flat above it and spent tens of thousands of pounds renovating the forecourt and the disused shop, which until its closure had been the only one in the village.

A few weeks after he arrived, the pumps were ready for action again, the shop stocked with groceries and newspapers, and the Post Office counter inside fully operational. Elderly villagers started collecting their pensions there. Younger ones did their shopping. Colaton Raleigh had a focal point again.

"I wanted to create a heart for the village," Finnegan explains. "I've always wanted to live in a place like this, but you have to to put a lot into the community to get something out."

"It feels like a community again," says Robert Williams, an octogenarian buying groceries at the garage. "We had nowhere we could bump into people and chat." He says that before Mr Finnegan arrived, his old friends, retired local farmworkers like him, had started moving away, sick of relying on family and infrequent buses to get to shops in other villages.

Small petrol retailers like Mr Finnegan, who act as grocery and convenience lifelines for the villages they serve, are closing down across the country at an alarming rate. Some 300 of the country's 900 rural petrol stations shut last year, and the decline goes on. The retailers are being bankrupted by stringent new environmental regulations. To comply with an EU-issued directive, called Fuel Vaporisation Systems One, owners have had to spend thousands of pounds on the pump systems on their forecourts, or face being closed down.

Colaton Raleigh bucked the trend because Brian Finnegan invested his own money in refurbishing the garage. "When I moved here," he says, "I thought it would be like a semi-retirement. But I love serving people. Most owners can't afford to do it. They haven't a choice, they just close up and go. It's tragic."

The regulations have the worthy aim of stemming the leakage of harmful fuel residue into the land around petrol stations. Instead they are creating ghost communities.

"Ironically, it's those without cars who rely on the petrol stations for supplies," says Ray Holloway, of the Petrol Retailers Association. "They have nowhere else to go. As well as the villagers, you have farmers who suddenly find they have to drive 20 miles to get to their nearest petrol supply. It has a huge knock-on effect." The petrol stations operate in areas where having a stand-alone shop or post office is not viable: when one service closes down, they all do.

Ray Michie, MP for Argyll and Bute, says her constituency is among the worst affected. "When petrol stations shut, it often leads to the closure of the community. In one area I know of, the petrol station closed and eventually everybody moved out. From 400 people before there are only three or four families left."

Stephen Caulfield, owner of Caulfield's service station in Tunstall, Suffolk, spent pounds 40,000 modifying his forecourt in anticipation of the new directive a few years ago. "If I'd known then what I know now I wouldn't have done it," he says. "It's desperate. You have to work like hell just to keep up with the regulations and pay the rates and taxes. It's not a business any more." Mr Caulfield's is the only shop in a village of 300 inhabitants, and he says it is unlikely his son, now a partner, will want to take over the business. Villagers and farmers will face a 15-mile round trip to Tesco for provisions and petrol. "God knows what will happen if we close," Mr Caulfield says. The only hope for these garages now is to gain local business rate exemptions.

"Neil Kinnock," he continues with venom, "promised when he was EU Transport Commissioner that small garages would be exempt from the regulations. It never happened." The PRA has been lobbying in Westminster to exempt the most marginal locations from hikes in petrol tax, which drive customers away towards the nearest cut-price supermarket. "But we're up against the environmental lobby and Brussels," says Mr Finnegan. "We've had no chance."

The recent regulations are just the start. The EU has drafted a new law, due to be implemented in five years, which will mean every pump in the country would have to be updated at a cost of up to pounds 10,000 per pump. "Peanuts to the multinationals," says Mr Finnegan, "but I wouldn't be able to carry on. I don't know who would."

For many of his fellow retailers, the options are similarly bleak. The PRA fears its family business members will be wiped out. "I can't see anyone I know being in the business in ten years' time," says Mr Caulfield. The small petrol stations are overwhelmingly family affairs, started as small businesses at a time when the grip of multinationals and supermarkets was much weaker. They have helped preserve a battered rural economy and it seems the cruellest irony that they are being wiped out by environmental regulations.

In Colaton Raleigh there live men and women whose families have worked the land for generations. They bear the same names as those engraved on the 18th-century headstones in the churchyard; this continuity is part of what makes the village feel like the essence of rural Britain. Soon, they may be packing up and leaving for good.