THE BLOG

The Pressure Builds in 'Running on Empty' Britain

07/11/2014 12:50 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Have you noticed at petrol stations these days that most motorists don't fill up the tank any more?

Instead they put in £10, £20 or £30 of petrol. Just enough to last the next few journeys. But they don't want to put £70 or £80 in if they aren't going to use it immediately.

Rather than handing their cash over to the petrol companies sooner than they have to, motorists want to hold onto it themselves.

This is perhaps the most obvious example of what I would call 'running on empty' Britain, a country that is becoming more obvious by the day.

Families are putting off spending for as long as possible on many fronts. From getting the car serviced or tyres changed to basic household repairs or stocking up the food cupboard. Waiting longer before getting your hair cut to buying new shoes or clothes. Travelling off peak - or not travelling at all.

'Running on empty' may be another way of describing the cost of living crisis. Families don't have much if any spare cash and are trying to be creative in making what they do have go further.

Some families are now sharing much more to stretch their income, from three generations living together under one roof to reduce housing costs to sharing care to avoid large bills for childcare or eldercare or both for the increasing numbers of sandwich generation carers. As reviews on Good Care Guide show, families are increasingly relying on informal family care rather than using formal paid-for care services.

'Running on empty' highlights some major issues for lifestyles in Britain and for our economy. Clearly it means a fall in demand for many products and services with knock-ons for economic recovery. Many of the major supermarkets have suffered as families' shopping habits have changed from a big weekly or fortnightly shop to almost daily visits to more local stores to get what they need there and then. The good side is that people are wasting less - not chucking so much food away and making things last longer.

But if people aren't stocking up for the future, then come a crisis or emergency, many will come unstuck. If you have to make an unexpected journey or have a major illness or fall or face sudden unexpected bills for example, then a lack of supplies or petrol could be disastrous. 'Running on empty' is fine until that moment hits.

And it's not just families that are 'running on empty'. Many businesses have run down their stock in recent years and won't replenish it without confirmed orders.

For some bigger companies the ongoing drive for efficiencies means that fewer hold supplies like fuel in reserve for more than a day or two. This may reduce costs (on a one-off basis) but makes companies more vulnerable to 'events'.

The biggest event (and a growing fear) is that our energy supplies may run out. This has been increasingly predicted because of problems with domestic supplies and the reliability of some foreign sources. Diversifying energy sources and investing in renewables will help. But this winter could see the biggest challenge for 'running on empty' Britain.

For firms it may mean shutting down for periods of time. But for families and some of our most vulnerable people, the consequences are much greater if they are unable to stay warm and eat properly. Are we ready for the crisis ahead?

There is of course an alternative to 'running on empty' Britain? But it will require a radical shift in priorities from paying a living wage to investing in renewables, underpinned by fair taxation.