Motorists drive on by as 'dump the pump' protest misfires

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The British public's lack of fondness for mass protest was displayed yet again yesterday when the first national demonstration to be organised via the internet was largely ignored.

The British public's lack of fondness for mass protest was displayed yet again yesterday when the first national demonstration to be organised via the internet was largely ignored.

The vast majority of motorists pottered about as usual, either ignorant of a plea to boycott petrol stations or feeling the need to replenish their tanks regardless.

Drivers expressed support for a drastic cut in fuel prices - it would be a strange consumer that did otherwise - but practicalities edged out indignation in most regions. Motorists continued to fill up as usual in defiance of the "dump the pump" campaign.

Garages in northern England and Scotland reported a slippage in sales, but some holiday areas said they were pumping for all their worth.

A French-style "blockade" of Dover by hauliers in support of the protest fell foul of British apathy. Only a dozen out of an expected 200 truckers turned up - six of them in lorries and six in cars.

Len Johnson, chairman of the Hauliers' and Farmers' Alliance which organised the protest, said his small band of demonstrators forgathered in mid-Kent and simply popped down to Dover for a pot of tea to make a day of it. He declared his disappointment: "It sends out all the wrong signals to the Government and makes them think hauliers don't mind paying the high taxes on fuel."

The organiser of the petrol station boycott, Garry Russell, nevertheless declared that the whole thing had been a roaring success. Mr Russell, 39, a website designer from Essex, said: "I went to a Texaco garage this morning and they had one vehicle turn up in an hour when normally there would be in the region of 35. I'm absolutely delighted with the result.

"There is obviously a huge amount of anti-Government sentiment and I hope this is a signal to them that the British motorist is sick of the high tax increases on fuel." Mr Russell said he hoped motorists would continue to boycott pumps every Monday until the Government was forced to bring prices down.

Industry observers contended that support was likely to tail off and that in any case most politicians were now either in Tuscany or the Dordogne until September and would be blissfully unaware of the campaign.

Ray Holloway, of the Petrol Retailers' Association, said that yesterday was a "typical Tuesday". Sales were down in the Yorkshire and Tyne-Tees areas by up to 50 per cent in some sites, but petrol stations in holiday areas such as the Lake District and East Anglia were considerably busier than usual.

While Mr Holloway said the response yesterday was patchy at best, Mr Russell said his website had received 860,000 visits. That was an impressive total given that there were 26 million vehicles in Britain. "It's the kind of message politicians should be taking heed of," he said.

Petrol pump attendants at the Tesco service station on the A34 at Handforth Dean in Cheshire said they were kept depressingly busy. Two attendants, anticipating an uncommonly quiet morning on which they could read every daily newspaper, were mildly disappointed. A 5p per litre reduction in unleaded fuel - priced at 79.9p per litre - was not being sniffed at, it seemed. "We've had a little less trade than normal," said one attendant, "but the very early morning commuter trade was just the same."

The rush hour is usually frantic here on Manchester's main southern artery - except in the August holiday season. "Strange time for all this to happen," said one of the attendants.

As he wielded an unleaded pump, Stuart Whitehead, 28, a quality manager, was unmoved by the notion that failing to dump it represented a betrayal of those who, like him, travel 70,000 miles a year on business. "It's definitely a cause which is worth backing," he said. "But one day per month isn't going to register any effect."

Lesley Marvi, 35, busy shuttling her child around, was in no mood to justify her £20 top-up. "I just need it to get around and there was no time to fill up in advance," she said.

"The publicity could have been better and I'm desperate for petrol," said another young mother, Sheila Coleman, 23. Brian Wicks, 44, a supermarket worker, would have abided by the protest if he had remembered about it. "In any case, the prices have come right down," he said.

Sales in the Birmingham area were said by retailers to be normal - even at a garage where posters urged customers to "dump the pump".

Shailesh Parekh, 35, who runs a filling station under licence from Texaco in Solihull, West Midlands, decided to stage the poster protest at what he believes are "exorbitant" petrol taxes crippling motorists and retailers alike.

But drivers appeared to be ignoring his pleas and business was "more or less as normal", a cashier at the station said.

Bob Cockburn, licensee at Esso's Collingwood main service station in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, where unleaded fuel is priced at 79.9p per litre, said business was down by half. Mr Cockburn said: "It has been very quiet indeed, with only dribs and drabs coming in since the morning. However, yesterday was very busy and we are expecting tomorrow to be busy as well."

It was a similar picture in Morpeth, Northumberland, where the Jet Conoco garage on Station Road reported the numbers of motorists filling up down by roughly half.

A spokeswoman for Texaco garages said she had spoken to managers at various branches and there had been no report of any drop in sales. "It's business a usual as far as we're concerned," she said.

At BP three out of four garages said sales were normal, while one in four said they were a "bit quieter". Shell reported minimal impact except for a site "here and there".

The company added that its petrol would be reduced to 79.9p per litre with immediate effect. But a spokeswoman for Shell said: "It would be wrong to link this reduction to the boycott the pumps campaign."

A spokesman for Tesco, the biggest supermarket retailer of petrol, said there had been a "slight dip" in sales, but nothing more.

The Retail Motor Industry Federation, which supports the objective of the campaign but not the boycott, said sales were normal in most parts of the country , although there was some downturn in business in the North-west and Yorkshire.

Lord Whitty of Camberwell, a Transport minister, said it was understandable people were concerned, particularly in rural areas, and that the Government recognised motoring costs "were a problem".

However, he said there was a "misapprehension" at the heart of the "dump the pump" campaign. "It has been the increase in crude oil prices not the taxation which has increased the pump prices," the minister said.