With or without Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze, the lights could soon start going out

The recent summary of the United Nations report on climate change, published on 27 September, only re-emphasised the urgency of the world taking action on emissions.

Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze gas and electricity prices was hailed by his supporters as a masterstroke that cuts to the heart of the most important issue in post-crisis Britain: stagnant household incomes in the face of rapidly rising prices. His opponents called it a lurch to the far left that revives a brand of economic interventionism not seen since the 1970s. With any luck, it will at least encourage politicians of all parties to take a closer look at Britain’s overall energy policy.
 
In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was in the midst of a postwar economic boom. The economy grew at 3 per cent a year on average and electricity demand at more than double that rate. It was the heyday of technocratic planning and no serious person believed that such rapid growth in demand could possibly be met by the uncoordinated private sector. By the 1970s, therefore, the supply of energy in Britain was controlled directly by the state from top to bottom. The government planned investment, provided finance and set prices; its plan was implemented by state-owned monopoly utilities.
 
At the beginning of the 1980s, however, this conventional wisdom regarding the optimal way of organising the energy industry underwent a big change. The primary reason was the general shift in economic ideology. In 1978, one of the leading British proponents of Austrian economics, Stephen C Littlechild, published a pamphlet, The Fallacy of the Mixed Economy, which became the classic statement of the economic case for privatisation and market liberalisation.
 
A planned economy, Littlechild warned, assumes extraordinary powers on the part of the planners. For planning or the planned part of a mixed economy to be efficient, the planners would have to know what people want, what technologies are available to meet their demands and where the resources are to deploy them. In reality, it is difficult for planners to discover the second and third of these and logically impossible to know the first.
 
Fortunately, he explained, society has devised an ingenious solution to this canonical informational problem in the form of the market: a magic machine for discovering consumers’ demands and the most efficient way of meeting them, in which no individual needs to know much at all.
 
A market economy might be organisationally more messy – in other words, requiring many competing firms instead of just one – but in terms of its informational requirements, it would be infinitely simpler (and therefore more efficient) than the existing planned system.
 
There were changes afoot in the UK economy that made the energy sector especially fertile ground for this new philosophy. The golden age of growth was over and the economy was busily moving from one based on energy-intensive manufacturing to the dominance of the service sector we know today. As a result, rapid growth in demand was no longer the problem. In 1970, it was predicted that Britain would require 100GW of generating capacity in 1995. In the event, only a little over half of that was needed.
 
Instead, the main challenge was how to improve the efficiency of the existing system. So, in energy more than almost any other sector, the trade-off from moving to a market system seemed to promise extraordinary economic gains.
 
The increase in organisational complexity as the nationalised behemoths were dismantled into their constituent parts and new institutions were created to regulate and operate the new energy markets would offset the far greater efficiency of resourcing, operations and investment guided by the decentralised decisions of market participants. It all took a while, but in 1998 the last vestiges of the old monopoly utilities were abolished with the introduction of competition in the retail supply of electricity and gas.
 
However, because of global warming and the new requirements of the post-Kyoto world, mitigating carbon-dioxide emissions was fast becoming the dominant challenge. As the decline of the UK’s indigenous natural gas fields came into prospect, ensuring security of supply and managing the energy sector’s impact on the balance of payments also became important concerns.
 
There was no reason in theory why the liberalised market alone was going to achieve these objectives automatically – and no evidence in practice that it would. It seemed that planning by the state would be required after all.
 
Yet successive Labour governments and the current coalition opted instead for an incremental approach: a persistent accumulation of directives, rules and subsidy schemes intended to cure the liberalised markets’ intrinsic indifference to decarbonisation and security of supply, all programmed and overseen by a growing army of regulatory bodies, quangos and advisory institutions.
 
So we have ended up with the worst result from both worlds: a Byzantine industrial structure theoretically co-ordinated by the market mechanism, but one that nevertheless requires omniscient policymakers to mastermind everything it does.
 
This situation is not sustainable. With or without a price freeze, we face the distinct possibility of a capacity shortage – that’s “the lights going out” to you or me – by the middle of this decade; and the recent summary of the United Nations report on climate change, published on 27 September, only reemphasised the urgency of the world taking action on emissions.
 
Do our politicians still believe in the model of a liberalised energy sector? If they do, then policy and regulation need to be simplified drastically. If they do not, they might as well give up and return to old-school state direction. An energy policy marooned in noman’s- land is not an option.
 
Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Bodley Head, £20). His column appears fortnightly
We are facing the distinct possibility of a capacity shortage, or "the lights going out". Image: Getty

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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