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When do fuel prices become too high?

Greg Devine & Diane Hall


Orange low fuel indicator on a car dash. Empty fuel tank notification on speedometer in car.

Greg’s view (20 years old): To many, the answer to that question may be now. With the general cost of living on the rise, we appear to be edging closer to a point where people simply won’t be able to afford to attend work. The situation appears to be having an effect on everybody, regardless, to some extent, of their income. A trip to the supermarket will prove that—read this article to see what I mean.

Aged 20 and living at home, I feel I’m in a fortunate position to be able to fill my car up without too much thought—mostly, because it’s the only expense I have to worry about at this moment. However, if it’s becoming a worry for me, I struggle to see how a family, already under immense stress from rising energy and food costs, are coping.

There are many reasons for the high cost of fuel, but the conflict in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russia do not constitute one of them. Most of Britain’s oil comes from Norway, which, giving its geographic proximity to us, you’d be forgiven for thinking that sanctions in Russia or the Middle East would have little to no impact on our country’s fuel prices. However, we all can see this isn’t the case. Just because the UK’s oil comes from Norway doesn’t automatically mean the oil used to create our fuel does; BP and Shell are both known to use crude oil from the Middle East, the price of which has been rising for some years now.

It all sounds quite ironic, doesn’t it? BP, also known as British Petroleum, using more expensive oil from overseas and forcing the British public to pay astronomical amounts? It doesn’t sound very British (or maybe it sounds extremely ‘British’…).

Good news isn’t on the horizon, unfortunately. The managing director of Portland Fuel told the BBC, ‘I'm afraid we are going to see prices in excess of £1.70-£1.75 a litre’. To many, this will simply be too much. He also suggested, to save money, the public should ‘cut their use, by driving less’. If you live in London, that’s a great idea, but for anyone else, this is simply impossible.

Take, for example, my commute from Rotherham to Doncaster. Yes, there are buses and trains available, but the inconvenience and expense means driving remains the logical option. My drive to work on a morning takes around 25 minutes. If I compared this to a commute by bus, this same passage would take one hour ten minutes, which would require a change during the journey. Yes, the bus would prove a lot cheaper, but I’d be paying for that in lost time and, most importantly, sleep. A lack of sleep would impact my work, which would make me, as an employee, less efficient and less profitable to my employer’s business.

If I came to work by train, the commute would be one hour thirty minutes. Ticket prices differ too. As the relevant train station isn’t in walkable distance from my house, I’d have to catch a bus or drive there. Rotherham station isn’t really considered a park and ride, and parking in a town centre is not cheap. The money I’d save in fuel would quickly be wiped out by the cost of parking. The train tickets themselves would be just under £10, and I also wouldn’t get home until 6pm, rather than 5pm if I drove. Using public transport is not a credible alternative to anyone that lives outside a large city.

When will the government step in? There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the rising cost of living, and fuel is certainly no exception to this. When people can’t afford to go to work, the country will grind to a halt, and our already fragile economy surely can’t take any more beatings. The government must put a cap on fuel prices or reduce the amount of tax they take from it.

If we do reach the point where people can no longer afford to drive to work, we’ll need to investigate the impact this will have on their mental health. The stress and embarrassment that could stem from someone not being able to afford to fill their car with fuel could be colossal. If they used public transport, they will most likely need to set off for work earlier. This could mean skipping breakfast, which is considered by many as the most important meal of the day. Other options would be to wake up earlier; if, for whatever reason, it’s not an option to go to bed earlier, the lack of sleep will have a significant negative impact on that person’s wellbeing. Altering your morning/evening routine may not even be an option, if you have children to get to school.

Something must change, and soon. The cost of living cannot continue to rise whilst wages stagnate or fail to keep up. Action needs to be taken by these huge corporations and the government before the country simply cannot continue and poverty becomes a more common issue than it already is.

woman with banknotes near car, put money to car tank, the concept of rising fuel prices, closeup

woman with banknotes near car, put money to car tank, the concept of rising fuel prices, closeup

Diane’s view (47 years old): At the bottom of my street, there’s a petrol station. Part of a national chain, it always costs me a little more to fill up there than if I visited the supermarket fuel stations a couple of miles away.

Over this last week, the price of petrol has risen dramatically. I’ve taken to looking at the price as I leave/return to the street; it went up by 16p a litre in two days.

I took my daughter to the airport, and it rose 2p during that one journey. What’s remarkable is that the three-hour round trip from Pontefract to Manchester Airport and back cost me roughly £30 in petrol. Her fare to Italy and back only cost £36.

The fuel companies say they’re basing their prices on the escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and passing on the higher costs they’re facing when purchasing the fuel for their customers. The fuel they’re currently selling, as I write this, will undoubtedly have been purchased before said conflict got into its stride, which makes their statement a bit insulting. They’re certainly not as fast to reduce the price when oil premiums drop (if the fuel giants even put the price down at all); that certainly doesn’t happen on an hour-by-hour basis.

I can imagine some people will soon think, ‘I can’t afford to go to work.’ Covid saw a shift to remote working through necessity and, despite it proving a viable option for businesses with no loss of productivity, once we were allowed into workspaces again, there were lots of bosses who put pressure on their staff to return to the workplace. Hybrid working became a thing in the pandemic; in my opinion, this is the best compromise in view of what’s happening to living costs. If businesses can’t pay their workers more to offset the rising costs they’re facing, they may have to look at reducing their employees’ outgoings instead, and a reduction in the cost of commuting is one that will make a big difference.

I’m very lucky that I have some disposable income that will meet these increased costs with little impact on my lifestyle. My children, though adults, are still a financial burden, though I’ve almost weaned one of them off my bank account; the other one is due the same treatment very soon. I don’t have childcare costs, and my husband and I earn more now than we ever have done.

I still remember not having a pot to p*ss in.

Apologies for the crudeness of my description, but poverty is an issue I feel very strongly about. I know how scary it is not to be able to afford to put petrol in your tank, because I’ve been there. I’ve laid awake in bed for many a night, worrying about how we’d meet all of our outgoings. Although we’re in a better financial position now, we still don’t have much of a financial cushion. We’re only one payday away from being back there again, so I don’t take my position for granted. Though, what money I did plan to put away, to ensure some security, will now go into some fat cat’s pocket instead. Great.

If you were already living on the breadline before these price rises, being a two-car family may already be something out of your grasp. Cars will become more of a luxury than a necessity if fuel continues to jump. And though electric cars are touted as the solution, the energy companies are having their own field day with prices, which they too are blaming on outside influences and the world situation. The cost of keeping an electric car on the road is set to become much more expensive than it currently is, which may deter us from doing our bit for the environment, something I talk about in this article.

An answer to the rising fuel costs problem could be remote or hybrid working, certainly, but not every job can be done from home. Workers in these roles may be forced to change their shift patterns—particularly those with families. If you can only afford to run one car, families may have no option but to have one parent work during the day and one during the night. Other than changing jobs to ones within walking/bus journey distance, this may be the only workable solution; the added benefit of ‘ships that pass in the night working patterns’ is that money spent on childcare could be freed up, which could help families meet all the other living costs that have risen. In this scenario, however, family time would go down the swanny, which brings repercussions. People’s opportunities will also be limited to their locality.

There has to be a limit.

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