License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

2013: The year the big six became the new banks

Damian Kahya
Damian Kahya is Energydesk editor
License: All rights reserved. Credit: GP

In October 2013 the row over the profits of the UK’s largest energy suppliers entered the level of a political crisis.

Amidst a public clamour over rising bills the opposition leader, Ed Miliband, called for a price freeze - at the cost, if necessary, of utility profits. The same utilities which Mr Miliband wants split up if he wins the election.

As the government floundered the former Prime Minister, John Major, surprised most of his party by urging a windfall tax on big six profits.

But the industry were prepared. A year earlier lobby group Energy UK had chosen a former spokesperson for the banks - Angela Knight - to make their case.

The move had baffled many at the time - but with the big utilities now facing the same sort of threat to their right to operate as the banks had a few years earlier, the reasons soon became clear.

Banking crisis

For Ms Knight, after all, a systematic political attack on her employers driven by a wave of public outrage was nothing new.

In the wake of the financial crisis, and after many of the UK’s largest financial institutions had been bailed out, the struggling Labour government turned on those it saw as it’s economic tormentors.

At stake was a relatively insignificant measure, a new 50% tax on bonuses in the financial services sector which even the government accepted would raise only a few hundred million pounds. To Ms Knight however, it threatened nothing less than economic ruin for the sector.

By being “stupid enough” to act “emotionally and not logically” the government would push our financial sector into fleeing the country, threatening up to a million jobs. “We’ve already seen quite a few companies shift out of the UK,” she warned the BBC’s viewers.

But the risks went further than that. As the government changed and moves were made to regulate and split up the banks Ms Knight warned it wouldn’t just hurt the sector.

“The number one priority is that we get out of recession,” Ms Knight told the Financial Times. “We’re in the middle of something the size of which none of us has seen for a long time.” If banks were forced to hold more cash in reserve there was “a real risk of a double dip” as banks “suppressed lending and the economy”.

In short, she argued, “banks are never popular but, nevertheless, they are needed. A modern and vibrant economy requires them to operate sensibly, provide competitive services and make money.” The success of the nation, in short, depends on the well being of her employers “it’s time to stop demonising success: profit is a good thing.”

The new banks?

Ms Knight can’t have failed to realise a modern economy needs more than just the well being of it’s largest banks, willing to lend to homes and businesses.

It also depends on the wellbeing of it’s largest energy firms, to keep the lights on, keep costs down and - in the eyes of some at least - to tackle climate change.

A 20 month price freeze may again have relatively little impact on the consumer - coming during a period when most expect wholesale prices to be stable or falling. But again, for Ms Knight, the impact on the industry will be devastating.

"Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive,” she told The Telegraph “but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000 plus people dependent on the energy industry.” Fewer, admittedly, then hired by the banking sector - but still a chunky number.

And what hurts the industry, hurts the wider economy. The move, she warned, will make “the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.” In conclusion she asked "Will energy companies go bust or will people go cold?"

A tax on profits would be little better. “My understanding is that windfall taxes have taken place in the past where there’ve been windfall profits,” said the former voice of banking.

"The profits here are four or five pence in the pound. That isn’t particularly big, and at the same time everybody is looking at is an extremely large investment as well. So you have to make the operating margin if you’re going to pay for that investment.”

In short, if you don’t allow profits, you won’t get investment.

Big six investment?

One can debate the details. Those low profits she mentioned apply only to the division that sells direct to customers, the divisions which generate the power are far more healthy.

An analysis by Bloomberg found the utilities - which are under no obligation to invest their profits in new kit - sometimes don’t.

Instead they return it to shareholders or invest it in what they see as more promising prospects overseas. British Gas owner Centrica recently sold an option to build a giant UK windfarm, and invested instead in a Irish gas firm. In fact, Bloomberg found, much of the investment in new infrastructure comes from firms other than those that supply us with power and electricity.

Yet the fundamentals of Ms Knights case hold - at least for the UK.

The big six don’t have to suffer losses in one part of their business, just because another makes money. If their coal, or gas, plants lose money only operating some of the time - they shut them, unless they are provided with a subsidy to keep them open. Nor must they invest in the UK, just because we pay our bills here. Their legal obligation is to their shareholders (including our own pension funds), not politicians.

Elsewhere the dependence on them is far weaker and the energy system more mixed. In Germany, which has it’s own problems with bills, most of the investment in clean energy comes from individuals and local authorities. It means that much of the power supply is also, increasingly, in a range of hands.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that politicians there have allowed their profits to be hit far harder than ever seems likely here, though even there many question whether it was wise.

But as long as the UK remains dependent on a few big firms for power and investment then, just like the banks, those firms will have a right to dictate the terms of the debate. After all, when the fuss died down the government didn’t announce a windfall tax - much as it may have wanted to. It announced a policy change long demanded by British Gas.



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