County council unable to prioritise access to fuel in East Sussex without emergency powers

East Sussex County Council would not be able to begin prioritising access to fuel without government intervention, councillors have heard.

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 1:21 pm
'Out of Use' signage is pictured on the petrol pumps (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The matter was discussed at a meeting of the local authority’s cabinet on Thursday (September 30), where Liberal Democrat group leader David Tutt asked senior officers for details of what plans were in place to weather the current fuel crisis. 

As part of this, Cllr Tutt asked whether the council could step in to ensure those who most need fuel could be given priority access. 

Cllr Tutt said: “I am sure you and others will have received emails from members of the public asking about what contingency plans we might have.

“It has been suggested to me by more than one person that we seek to get designated garages within the county for those who have urgent requirements. 

“I use the word urgent as a way of describing probably about a third of the population and I know it is a very complex issue. We know we have emergency services, but in East Sussex obviously we have people who are seeking to care for those who require home visits for adult social care.

“We have those drivers who are taking vulnerable children to and from school and I have also been lobbied by taxi drivers who provide a vital service for many within the community. 

“Maybe it will ease, I’m not sure. I came across here on Tuesday and passed three petrol stations all of which were closed.

“There is certainly a nervousness within the community and if Rupert [Clubb, director of communities, economy and transport] would be kind enough to keep us posted on how his contingency group are progressing plans, so we can share those with the wider community, that would be extremely helpful.” 

Councillors heard from Mr Clubb how the government had found extra drivers to resupply petrol stations, which, at least anecdotally, appeared to be improving the situation.

He also said he had been in discussions with other members of the Local Resilience Forum about the issue, but that the government position had not changed on enacting a national fuel emergency plan.

Chief executive Becky Shaw highlighted the importance of this, saying the council was limited in what it could do before this plan was enacted.

Ms Shaw said: “I think it is really important to be clear that unless the government enact the national fuel plan we don’t have the ability to direct fuel services. 

“We are working very closely with all our staff and our services to make sure no one is put at risk as a result of lack of fuel or indeed a lack of drivers. I know that Mark [Stainton – director of adult social care] and his colleagues  are working incredibly hard with the care providers, who do have the potential to be hard hit by this. 

“We are doing all that we can in order to make sure that the resources we’ve got are being put into the right place, but I think it is really important for people to understand that without that national fuel plan being invoked we are not in a position to [direct services].”

Ms Shaw went on to warn that even should the council be called on to prioritise access to fuel it could prove to be far more challenging than in the past (such as the fuel crisis of 2000). 

She said this was in part because the definition of key worker had changed significantly since then as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

During discussion lead member Cllr Bob Standley (Con) argued there were two problems at play which required separate approaches.

He said: “There are two issues and I think we shouldn’t conflate the two. One is the fuel shortage, which looks like it may be easing because we’ve all got full tanks and the shortage of drivers is more of a long term [issue]. 

“Yes, at the moment they are coinciding, which is a problem, but they are two separate problems which need two separate solutions.”