COLUMN: Jonathan Walker - Fuel a key player in recovery

THE long queues snaking out of forecourts recently were a stark reminder of just how much importance we place on a steady supply of fuel and how it literally keeps the wheels of the economy moving.

THE long queues snaking out of forecourts recently were a stark reminder of just how much importance we place on a steady supply of fuel and how it literally keeps the wheels of the economy moving.

Thankfully, the North East seemed to escape the worst of the panic buying and, despite some shortages, the impact on businesses appears to have been minimal.

However, this shouldn't lead to complacency. You only need to think back to the fuel blockades back in 2000 to realise how an industrial dispute can lead to widespread disruption.

Leaving aside the issue of what advice ministers should and shouldn't give for fear of causing a panic, there needs to be a far greater understanding at the heart of government of the extent to which businesses' success can be dependent on fuel. Not only do businesses need fuel to be available, they also need it to be affordable.

The cost of filling up remains exceptionally high and is often a significant detractor from business profits. This is felt particularly keenly in the North East, where the costs of getting our goods to market can be higher than elsewhere in the country.

It was incredibly disappointing that the Chancellor missed the opportunity to address the rising cost of fuel in the Budget, where even a cancellation of the rise in duty would have made a big difference.

Of course, there is a challenge to businesses here to reduce their reliance on oil based fuels and embrace new technologies. In the North East, we are leading the way in electric and other low carbon vehicle development, led by the likes of Nissan and Smith Electric Vehicles.

However, despite their successes, these remain emerging technologies and in the short term at least, petrol and diesel will continue to be essential commodities for businesses.

Now that all parties involved in the current dispute seem to be willing to get around the negotiating table, the potential for disruption seems to be diminishing.

If there is a positive to take from the reaction of the public and businesses in the past week, hopefully it will be to make the Government see the availability and cost of fuel as a key player in the economic recovery.

:: Jonathan Walker is export policy adviser at the North East Chamber of Commerce

 
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