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Fuel Crisis: You Might Think Britain Has a Problem - And You'd Be Right

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We've got a senior government minister suggesting Britons turn their homes into potential deathtraps; we've got police being called in to break up fights in long queues at petrol stations. You might think Britain has a problem.

And you'd be right. But it goes a long way beyond Francis Maude's potentially deadly gaffe, and the Unite tanker drivers' concern over their pay and conditions.

Because what's caused this problem is a threat to the supply of fuel in Britain, a threat that won't go away after the last stamp has been put on the inevitable deal between Unite and employers.

There's the threat that global supplies could be threatened by political instability or war; the threat of disruption caused by natural disaster and industrial catastrophe; and most of all there's the fact that oil is a finite resource and we've already passed its peak supply.

And our national life is built, to a totally unnecessary and harmful degree, around this commodity. The words of one driver in Plymouth pretty well sum it up: "Most of us are crippled without our cars."

That's not the fault of individuals. The facts of house prices and the push to make home ownership the default option, plus the shortage of employment and the pressure for worker "flexibility", has left huge numbers of Britons commuting great distances each week to their work.

Pressures on schooling, and the closure of local schools, have left huge numbers of children relying on cars and buses to reach their schools, when once walking to school was a standard part of everyone's childhood.

And as we saw the last time we went through this cycle, we're utterly reliant on fuel - and large amounts of it - to move all of the basic stuffs of life - milk, bread, vegetables, eggs - to the shops we use.

Francis Maude is now going to be forever remembered as "the jerry can man", and the media in the next day or so will be consumed with accounts of minor hysteria about this event.

But let's all take a deep breath and think. If it is like this now, what would it be like if the Straits of Hormuz were blocked by conflict? Or if a major supply is taken out long term by an environmental or industrial disaster? Or when Chinese/Indian consumption rises and supplies fall, doubling the price?

Times columnist Caitlin Moran has come up with one solution to this, on Twitter: "Two petrol-crises in ten years. Fuck this. I'm going self-sufficient *starts compressing zooplankton under sedimentary rock*."

Nice line if you've got a few million years. But since we don't, there are alternatives.

First, we could dramatically improve public transport so more people can use it to get to work, to school, to their lives. And we could seriously promote electric cars - for situations where that private transport is really essential. Both those steps would also save many thousands of lives by cutting air pollution and make our cities and towns far more pleasant places, by the way. That's what the Green Party is offering in its plans for London's future.

And we could start to relocalise our economies. Instead of shipping carrots from Scotland to East Anglia, then back to Edinburgh and Glasgow for sale - not an extreme example but an everyday occurrence, we could start to rebuild the network of market gardens that once surrounded our cities, and supplied food direct into stores. We could rebuild a local dairy industry, and even return to local flour mills and bakeries.

We could, and we must, for we really have no choice, as Francis Maude as so helpfully assisted in demonstrating.

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