BY KEITH MACKENZIE
Filling station owners in Lochalsh say they fear for the future of their businesses, after being snubbed by a Government scheme to cut the price of fuel on the rural mainland.
Last week it was announced that the European Commission had approved the UK Government’s application to extend a 5p per litre fuel discount — introduced in island areas in 2012 — to some of the remotest parts of the mainland.
Twelve of the 17 areas earmarked to receive the 5p a litre cut in fuel duty are in the Highlands or Argyll, with Applecross, Strathcarron, Ullapool, Gairloch and most of rural Lochaber in line for the discount.
However, the scheme does not cover the filling stations at Kyle of Lochalsh, Inverinate and Shiel Bridge. Motorists in these parts look set to continue to pay significantly more for their fuel than in neighbouring Skye.
Hugh MacQuarrie, owner of the Central Filling station in Kyle (pictured), said he was mystified as to why the scheme — spearheaded by the Liberal Democrats — would not include Lochalsh.
The selection criteria used to determine who qualifies for the discount is based on three factors.
The pump prices must have been more expensive than the lowest pump price on the islands served by the existing scheme, when a survey of prices was carried out in late 2012. Areas also have to be over 100 miles by road from the nearest refinery, and the population density must be no higher than any area in the current scheme.
“It seems a glaring omission, but we have never been given a firm reason as to why we don’t qualify,” Mr MacQuarrie said. “We can only assume that it’s because we are not expensive enough. To their credit Highland Council’s trading standards officers have worked hard to try and get us some answers.
“But since the scheme was introduced in Skye there is no doubt it has cost us a lot of local custom.”
Linda Carr, who runs the filling station at Inverinate, has also taken her case to trading standards. She believes that the price of petrol at Inverinate over two days in October 2012 might explain the omission.
On those two days petrol at Inverinate was being sold at 144.9p a litre — 1p cheaper than the qualification threshold being applied by the Government survey.
“It’s a possible reason, but this has never actually been clarified,” Ms Carr added. “I have been writing to Danny Alexander and Charles Kennedy about this for over two years. We have regular customers from Glenelg and Arnisdale — very remote areas. It just doesn’t seem fair on them.”
On Tuesday of this week petrol at Inverinate filling station was selling at 115.9p per litre, and diesel 120.9p. In Kyle it was 113.9p and 119.9p while in Broadford — where the 5p discount is applied — the price was 105.9p for petrol and 113.9p for diesel.
Although the rebate plan has been approved by commissioners it must also get agreement from the other European Member States, through the Council of the European Union, before it comes into force.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Highland LibDem MP Danny Alexander, said he hoped the discounts would be applied in the coming months.
“I’m determined to implement the Rural Fuel Rebate in the current Parliament as part of this government’s drive for a stronger economy and fairer society,” he said.
Party colleague and Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy said the LibDems had helped deliver what previous Labour and Tory governments could not.
He added: “As someone who travels across the Highlands and Islands week in and week out I know as countless Highlanders do that the geographical challenges we face demand the use of cars as a necessity, not a luxury.”
When questioned about the prospect of applying the rebate in Lochalsh, a spokesman for Mr Kennedy added: “Please be assured we are following up with the Treasury for full explanation and questioning the future of how the scheme will be extended, particularly for areas such as Lochalsh.”