EDITORIAL COMMENT: Service station doubling needs more thought, planning

If all the applications to build new retail fuel outlets received this year are turned into service stations, the number of service stations will more than double and despite growth in the sector this might well be imposing a burden on the communities that have to host the stations that is unnecessarily harsh.

According to the energy regulator, Zera, which plays a major role in licencing new service stations by last week there were 913 licenced fuel stations, selling diesel and petrol, across Zimbabwe, but applications for another 973 have been received so far this year, and this looks a bit like capitalism running wild.

The growing number of vehicles on the roads that use these fuels, the growth in suburbs and the density of cars and trucks in older high density suburbs, and the greater traffic on the highways all create opportunities for businesspeople to build and open a service station.

And we are talking about building rather than converting other structures because of the specialised nature of a service station.

We have been seeing service stations springing up in residential areas and surrounded by residential properties, which has created some opposition from those who now find themselves suddenly living next door to a fuel station, or living just a few houses away.

There have been several, and totally unsuccessful, attempts to block some of this development.

We would agree that the modern safety requirements for underground tanks and fail safe pumps, where a broken pump cannot allow highly combustible fuels to spill across the forecourt, reduce the danger to very low levels, although can never eliminate it as a leaking tank in the city centre showed a few years ago, saturating the surrounding ground with fuel residues.

But still the problem can exist. The new fuel stations often are used to edge in new commercial centres, since most have a convenience store, often a take-away, and in many cases other shops attached to the new building.

Sometimes these fulfil a need, helping we all hope, to reduce the numbers of informal tuckshops and unsafe pavement food dispensing and replace with better quality, safer and formal premises.

But we still have this relentless encroachment into residential areas driven by those who live elsewhere and who are not affected by suddenly having the next door house knocked down and replaced by a service station, without having much say in this dramatic change.

Part of the problem is the multiple licencing required. Zera is the principle licenser of fuel stations, but the local authority is required to be involved, although most simply just follow the Zera lead without fussing about the other aspects that are supposed to happen when a local plan is changed.

When people talk these new service stations being a result of investment they are correct, but the growth is in the retail sector, rather than the productive sector, a new “shop” for petrol and diesel fuels rather than a new factory or mine.

Retail trade also grows as more people have more money to spend, and planners need to take that into account, but this continual ribbon growth of retail trade, including service stations, does play havoc with city landscapes and does crowd out the people who are supposed to be enjoying life in the city.

The old clamp down on new development was just as at fault. After UDI in 1965 it became almost impossible to be licenced for new service stations, and even when the sector did open up a lot of the development was redeveloping older premises, in some cases demolishing what was there and starting afresh, rather than creating new sales points.

The licencing and opening of new service stations, rather than redeveloping older ones, really only started in a major way in the 2010s.

Of course, some of these older fuel stations are no longer in useful places, for example some of those that are now a traffic menace in parts of Harare city centre.

They were built there in a different era under circumstances that no longer apply. Because of the difficulty of finding new sites they were kept going, so some of the those 973 applications must be for what will amount to replacement stations, probably by taking business away and making them unviable.

The other planning requirement we need to start feeding into this sector is the global switch to electric vehicles that gathers speed over the next decade with hardly any countries planning on permitting manufacture of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2035 onwards.

While many be charging personal and factory vehicles overnight, there will still be need for rapid charging for those on journeys.

Already technology exists to charge up batteries for more than 400km use within around 20 minutes, although much of the further improvements of technology are likely to see increasing range rather than reducing charge times.

This will tend to see service stations needing a larger area and perhaps more restaurant facilities, at least for those along major routes where drivers will need to stop for up to 30 minutes.

Businesses that rely on the local trade are likely to have very little business as drivers charge their battery packs when at work or at home, or even when just parked while shopping.

There will still be a lot of residual petroleum business for some years after all new cars are electric, but that business will be diminishing all the time and be more and more catered for by specialist services stations, rather than by the general run of stations.

In the meantime it appears there is greater need to connect the town planning aspects of licencing and the need for Zera to make its more technical decisions.

Both sorts of authorities are required to have input and it is important for residents and those who have to live with the service stations, as well as those who will wish to have convenient access with their vehicles, to have their say and to have their needs properly taken into account.

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