The Petrol Stations

Portrait of Britain besieged
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The Independent Online

"I refuse to pay that much," said one motorist as she saw the price on the pump and realised she was being asked to pay £11 for a gallon of petrol.

"I refuse to pay that much," said one motorist as she saw the price on the pump and realised she was being asked to pay £11 for a gallon of petrol.

Forecourt owners were last night accused of rank profiteering as nation-wide fuel protests offered an opportunity to impose inflation-busting price hikes in the name of preserving dwindling stocks.

Drivers queuing at pumps up and down the land were prepared to pay the increases of around 10 per cent to fill their tanks amid forecasts of swathes of the country running dry. But such was the combination of panic buying and entrepreneurial spirit at a petrol station in Derby that police had to intervene to deal with complaints from customers.

The garage owner, Paul Gizzonio, whose forecourt price board was last weekend advertising a litre of unleaded at 80p, yesterday announced a rate of £1.99. The petrol station, in the Pear Tree area of the city, was offering diesel at the same price and super unleaded at £2.50 a litre - equivalent to £11.36 a gallon. Mr Gizzonio said: "I am not breaking any rules. We want to keep reserves, because petrol is running out."

His customers, many of whom resorted to joining the lengthy queue at a nearby Texaco outlet offering lower prices, were less than impressed. One said: "I refuse to pay that much. I'll pay £20, because that is what I usually pay for the amount of fuel I have - and they can call the police if they don't like it."

The police duly arrived but only to take issue with Mr Gizzonio rather than his customers. His forecourt sign with the new prices was ordered to be made clearer before trading continued.

Less dramatic but more widespread inflation was reported across the country, with many independent retailers announcing rises of 5p to 10p for a litre of unleaded petrol.

Save, which operates a network of 400 forecourts, said it was increasing its rate from 83.9p to 88.9p and imposing a £10-per-customer spending limit at some outlets. A spokeswoman, Heather Louro, said: "We will run out of petrol within the next couple of days. We are not making excess money out of the motorist. We decided we had to raise prices."

Repsol, another independent producer, which has 42 forecourts, increased prices to 85.9p for unleaded, 89.9p for a lead replacement and 87.9p for diesel.

The price hikes were condemned by motoring organisations and trade bodies. Edmund King, of the RAC Foundation, said: "A minority of operators are simply pumping up prices to maximise their returns. When this crisis is over, the offending stations should be boycotted." Ray Holloway, a spokesman for the Petrol Retailers' Association, said: "We must retain public support and this is the one way we are guaranteed to lose it."

In the North-west, even before the start of their working day, more than 100 garages had run out of fuel. Many forecourts were cordoned off with cones; others had signs saying only four-star leaded petrol or Derv were available.

Between Manchester and Chester garage after garage was deserted or besieged by cars. A man near the front of the queue at the Old Cock roundabout said he had been queueing for 90 minutes. Behind him, the line of cars stretched so far it blocked the traffic lights at the junction behind. "I was out all day yesterday looking for petrol," he said "and couldn't find any. So when I saw this was open I decided just to sit it out."

In Romiley, Stockport, a garage hiked prices by 10p a litre to 88.9 a litre for unleaded. Only after vehement protests from queuing motorists did the station revert to its previous price before running out.

There were already, after just two days of the blockading of refineries and the area's major depot at Trafford Park, more bicycles in evidence on the arterial roads into Manchester. Local radio stations have begun broadcasting advice on how to set up car sharing services.

Further afield, in rural areas where there are fewer garages, local people reported the roads to be quieter than usual as motorists cut non-vital journeys to conserve what little petrol they had.

In Surrey and Hampshire garages were imposing petrol rationing, restricting motorists to £10 worth unless they were account customers.

But customers were still backing the protesters. Marie Jarrold, from Bordon, Hampshire, was turned away from two stations where supplies had dried up but managed to fill her tank after queuing at Hindhead, Surrey. She said: "I work for British Car Auctions and the people there are really concerned about the high prices. It is our livelihood at stake."

Where supplies were unrestricted, motorist were taking war time measures and filling jerry cans, as they could only see matters getting worse.