A CUT-PRICE fuel scheme for Scottish motorists will move a step closer to reality today under plans to help hard-pressed families in rural areas.
Parts of the Highlands, Moray and Aberdeenshre will be included in a major new consultation by the Treasury to establish the true cost of petrol and diesel.
Ministers plan to use evidence gathered to win permission to extend a 5p-a-litre discount scheme – introduced on the islands last year – to parts of the mainland.
The UK Government will announce today that it is contacting almost 1,500 retailers in 35 counties and districts across Britain to assess the burden on drivers.
The exercise aims to identify communities that have similar fuel prices to the islands.
Yesterday, a litre of unleaded petrol cost 140.9p at Wick and Tain, 139.9 at Oban, Ellon and Fraserburgh, compared to 145.9p at Ullapool and 148.9p at Lerwick.
Controversy surrounded the launch of the scheme on the islands in March last year amid claims that the discount was never passed on to motorists and had been pocketed by suppliers.
But Highland MP and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander was undeterred and revealed exclusively to the Press and Journal in October that he wanted to extend it to remote communities on the mainland.
Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat said: “The island fuel rebate provides much-needed help to keep down fuel prices in areas where costs of transporting fuel mean prices are much higher.
“I know that there are other remote rural areas of the UK with similarly high fuel costs. So we are starting to gather further evidence that will form part of an application to the European Commission to extend the island fuel duty discount scheme to very remote rural areas.
“We will need to prove that there are areas which are similar to the islands in terms of pump prices and distribution costs, so I would urge local areas that may qualify to provide the information we need to make the case as robust as possible.”
Mr Alexander, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, added: “As a Highlander, I know that, for people who live in rural areas, driving is not a choice but a necessity.
“So while it won’t be easy to get this agreed with the commission, I want to do everything I can to make this happen.”
A spokeswoman for Moray Chamber of Commerce gave her backing to the plans last night.
“We welcome the news that the island fuel rebate may be extended to mainland areas,” she said.
“Because of where Moray is situated, driving everywhere is a must and everything has to be shipped.
“If the fuel rebate is extended to the region, it would not only benefit haulage firms and other businesses but would have a positive impact on the general cost of living for many Moray residents.”
Sir Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon, welcomed the move last night.
“I am encouraged by the Treasury’s willingness to consider adding rural areas, including Aberdeenshire, to the parts of the UK which are entitled to a fuel rebate,” he said.
“People in Aberdeenshire have often been frustrated by high fuel prices which realistically form an essential but significant cost to their household budgets.
“I hope that local fuel retailers will respond to the government’s consultation and help make the strongest case possible to take to Europe.”
Once the consultation, which is expected to last about two months, is complete Mr Alexander hopes to take the case for an extension to Brussels in the autumn.
The Treasury requires special permission for the discount because it breaches EU rules on intervention in markets.
Government officials are to contact retailers directly, as well as through local authorities and trade bodies.
Graham Phillips, chairman of Highland Council’s transport committee and SNP councillor for East Sutherland and Edderton, said: “I certainly would welcome it – I’m delighted that the Treasury, if belatedly, are saying they will look at this issue.
“The price of fuel in many rural communities is a significant disadvantage to people living there. They have to drive long distances to do things people living in towns can do around the corner, and the cost here is much higher.
“We will obviously co-operate with the inquiry in any way we can. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”
Phil Flanders, regional director of the Road Haulage Association, said: “It would certainly help a lot of the more remote parts – it’s not just the islands that have to pay high fuel prices. Bring it on.”
Meanwhile Alexander has been urged not to forget that the key reason for high fuel costs is the amount of tax flowing to the exchequer.
A north-east business leader issued the reminder yesterday as Mr Alexander prepared to expand his 5p-a-litre discount initiative to remote mainland areas.
Robert Collier, chief executive of Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, said he had raised the issue with the Highland Lib Dem MP earlier this year.
Mr Collier welcomed the proposed expansion of the cut-price fuel scheme, but called on the UK Government to re-evaluate its policies to tackle the problem.
He said: “Our member surveys consistently reveal that energy and fuel costs constrain growth. Members report that growth in turnover has not always been reflected in growth in profits, which are essential to invest in the future.
“Any approach which reduces fuel and energy costs in remoter areas has to be welcomed, but we would argue that the main cause of high prices is the government itself, with the Treasury taking nearly 80% of the cost of a gallon of fuel in duties and taxes during the whole production, refining and retailing process.”
Graham Philips, chairman of Highland Council’s transport committee and councillor for East Sutherland and Edderton, said there was no reason for fuel prices to vary so widely. “We are a comparatively small island and I want to see fuel costing pretty much the same all over.”
“Nowhere is that far from a port. In fact, there are many places in the Highlands that are much closer to a port than London is, yet they pay much more.”