Highlands getting raw deal over services and fuel costs

POOR internet and public transport top OFT report, says Claire Smith

Consumers in the Highlands and Islands are getting a raw deal on a whole range of services, according to a report from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Internet connections, fuel costs, delivery costs and inadequate public transport are all among the issues highlighted by the consultation into markets in remote parts of the UK.

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The news has been welcomed by consumer rights groups, who say people in remote areas of Scotland are not being fairly served.

Marieke Dwarshuis, senior director at Consumer Focus Scotland, said: “We know that many people in remote and rural communities across Scotland don’t get adequate services or value for money simply because of where they live.

“This is unacceptable, and we welcome the OFT’s comprehensive report. It draws attention to a number of concerns and clearly shows that there needs to be more focus, from a range of agencies, on getting services right from the start for consumers in our remote and rural communities.

“Local people, businesses and economies make up the backbone of our national economy, so getting this right is a win-win for everyone.”

The Office of Fair Trading estimates half a million people live in remote areas across the UK. Those who responded to the report raised concerns about high fuel and grocery prices, limited or high cost delivery services, inadequate public transport, slow internet speeds and poor mobile phone coverage.

The OFT is concerned about a lack of competition in rural areas, saying some businesses which supply remote areas have virtual monopolies.

And although the internet has made a wide range of goods available to people living in remote areas, the report says high delivery costs often make these less appealing.

There are now plans to carry out further investigations – analysing fuel prices in the islands, looking at consumer protection in the heating oil and liquefied petroleum sector and advice to farmers on co operation.

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The Office of Fair Trading is also working with Highlands and Islands trading standards to advise retailers who supply remote areas and to ensure that customers are getting a fair deal.

Kyla Brand, OFT director, said: “The call for evidence has shown how problems of price, choice and access to goods and services mount up for consumers and businesses in remote areas.

“We can now explain how joined-up approaches can succeed in making markets work well – or at least better – for those in remote areas.

“There is no quick-fix solution within the OFT’s powers, but we have a part to play alongside businesses, communities and government bodies.

“We have taken, and will continue to take, action ourselves to address these concerns.”