The Death And Rebirth Of London's Petrol Stations

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 26 months ago
The Death And Rebirth Of London's Petrol Stations

When you're deliberating whether to go for seaweed or kimchi on your Japanese hot dog, it's safe to say this is not your typical service station grub.

That's because Pump on Shoreditch High Street is no longer a Texaco petrol station stocked with apple turnovers microwaved to temperatures exceeding that of the sun, but a hip outdoor hangout, "where you can relax and unwind with friends and sample some of London’s finest street food".

Every time a hybrid bus zooms past while a punter sinks their teeth into a pillow of vegan ravioli, it seems to toll the death knell for petrol. So are London's filling stations slowly drying up altogether?

An ex petrol station on Peckham Road

The statistics would seem to say yes; the Petrol Retailers Association claims that from the end of 2008 to the end of 2015, the number of London's petrol filling stations reduced from 606 to 548 — a near-10% drop.

Avid cyclists and pedestrians across the city will already be mid-air as they jump for joy; the demise of London's petrol usage must be due to the success of the congestion charge, a sea-change in the way we use public transport, and news that cyclists in central London will soon outnumber car drivers, surely?

Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association doesn't think so: "Petrol filling stations are certainly in decline but not from lack of demand, which increased by approximately 1.6% year-on-year in 2015 across the UK," he says.

One of the major reasons behind the dwindling filling station numbers, says Madderson, is that the four major supermarkets (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons) have a share of only 17% of forecourts but 43% of fuel volume. These commercial giants can afford to make a near loss on fuel, because the meaty profit is coming from groceries.

As a result of these aggressive tactics, over 60% of the UK's independent forecourts (more than 4,000) have closed in the last 15 years.

Another petrol station dries up, this one in Wood Green. Photo by Tyla in the Londonist Flickr pool

But London's filling stations are closing for another reason too. Explains Madderson: "More often it is for alternative and higher value asset realisation." (That's being turned into property, to you and me)

That makes sense, especially given the prime location many forecourts occupy. OK, the road may be busy, but that's nothing a decent bit of triple glazing won't fix.

Take Peckham Road in south east London; until recently two filling stations stood within the a mile of each other — now, both are shut for good. While one remains boarded up, the other has quickly transmuted into The Residence SE5 — "nine unique one- and two-bedroom apartments located on the border of Camberwell and Peckham, two of the trendiest areas in south London".

Meanwhile, a planning application for a former petrol station on the Albert Embankment suggests "redevelopment of the site to provide a residential led, mixed-use development, comprising the retention and refurbishment of vintage house and development of ground plus 24 storeys..."

Not even the regenerated petrol forecourts are safe from the developers; The Filling Station bar and its accompanying restaurant Shrimpy's in King's Cross were a revelation, what with their classy Carmody Groarke redesign, and much-vaunted soft-shell crab burger. Now the project has been lost to — you guessed it — flats.

It makes you wonder if somewhere like Pump — already under scrutiny for iffy alcohol licencing — can last, especially given it's sat on the gateway between Hackney and the City of London.

The Filling Station: a great use of a former petrol station, but no longer with us. Photo by David Henderson in the Londonist Flickr pool

As for the old-fashioned petrol-selling petrol station — let's not discount it as a mere roadside eye-sore.

It's tough to argue they're as valuable an asset as, say, the local pub or corner shop (and, of course there are certainly plenty of environmental arguments against them). But let's not forget the special examples out there — the former Bell & Horn pub in Highgate, or Madderson's personal favourite — the Esso on Park Lane which is a mecca for car spotters, what with its custom from black cabs, Rolls Royces and Ferraris.

These days the humble petrol station is a vital refilling station for humans as well as cars. Madderson explains: "The margin on a cup of coffee is greater than selling 40 litres of fuel.

"As a result more than 40% of the remaining independents now have a symbol brand convenience store on site."

But the point is perhaps not whether London's petrol stations are used to sell petrol or electric or coffee or Japanese hot dogs; whether they're turned into makeshift cinemas or weary-looking car washes. What's vital is that in 10, 15 years' time, at least some of the city's forecourts still have something to offer Londoners other than "unique" one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Last Updated 10 January 2017