No government U-turn on fuel, say experts


As Britain grinds to a halt this week, 300 of the world's top transport experts gathered in Cambridge have predicted no climbdown by the Government on fuel prices.

The authorities on global petrol pricing and policy believe the escalating campaign against domestic fuel costs will end up as a damp squib. While tanker drivers continue to blockade oil refineries and motorists panic buy petrol, analysts warned they were fighting a losing battle.

The conference in Cambridge - the European Transport Conference 2000 - is this week being attended by transport professionals from around the world.

There was heightened interest in alternative ways of raising cash for road improvements as governments in both Britain and France were being pressured by citizens over fuel tax levels. With pumps up and down the country drying up and petrol stations closing, top transport consultant Peter Snelson from Europe's largest engineering consultancy W S Atkins said: 'There are no easy answers.

'In France the government will capitulate but here can you imagine Prescott knocking down the price of fuel? I don't think so.

'What's happening is that people are making a protest and it is something which needed to be done. People are saying enough is enough. Whether that is going to reduce fuel prices, I doubt, but it might make the government think twice about raising prices again.

'We have the most expensive fuel in Europe. The base price is the cheapest because we produce our own but because of the tax, at the pump it is the most expensive. If you've got high fuel prices you are going to restrict car use - and make a lot of money for the government.'

Cambridge University transport expert Andrew Probert said the government's plan to raise fuel prices to reduce car use was clearly not working - but there would be no 'U' turn.

'Petrol prices should not have gone up so much in the first place. They were supposed to go up and people were supposed to use less fuel in the process, but they haven't, so that excuse for putting them up has disappeared.

'It's because the French are succeeding that we are doing this. There is a secret hope that if France lowers its prices we will be embarrassed into doing the same.

'Eventually the protest will die out and everyone will go home. The Chancellor Gordon Brown will say there is nothing he can do.'

Mr Probert, who has advised government officals on transport policies, believes we now need to treat fuel as we do energy - a scarce resource - and conserve it.

'Everyone wants a silver bullet but there isn't one. There are lots of little things that we need to do but that's not terribly attractive.'

With the possibility that Britain's hauliers may bring the country to a standstill, French consultant Daniel Le Maire said the demonstrations were an exercise of power.

'Road hauliers are absolutely essential to the economy of this country and they know it. They have the power - and that power is being demonstrated,' he said.

By Mila Vucevic