How energy co-operatives could help keep bills down

Isn't it time we got more for our money?

Centrica, owners of British Gas, one of Britain’s biggest energy companies, has once again posted very good profits - made out of our individual energy needs. Isn't it time we got more for our money? That we had a stronger stake in how our energy gets generated, who benefits and where the profit goes? In the US a very different and far more diverse energy market exists. At its heart are energy co-operatives. 

Indeed, there are 42 million American citizens - the equivalent of two-thirds of the British population - who are members of energy co-operatives getting their energy needs met not from one of the Big Six energy firms that dominate the UK energy market but rather from ordinary people pooling their buying power to get a better deal. Even given the size of the US the co-operative energy movement serves 12 per cent of US energy consumers, far exceeding the reach of the UK’s small energy co-operative sector. 

Could things change in the UK? With concern growing about how our future energy needs will be met and increasing recognition that co-operating consumers could get a better deal for themselves and their communities, there is growing interest in how the government could map out a different, more decentralised and inevitably more sustainable energy market. 

The last Labour government saw and encouraged the growth of the social enterprise movement and the beginnings of a new community energy model providing mainly wind energy but some solar energy too. Baywind Energy Co-operative in the Lake District was the first to raise the required finance for turbines through community shares but a number of others have followed and more are planned. 

But if energy co-operatives and social enterprises are to be able to offer a real challenge to the traditional energy firms embraced by the Coalition, a far stronger set of signals from the Government will be required. 

One of the key lessons from the US is the need for a strong "champion" of consumer-led energy co-operatives and social enterprises to provide dedicated support, expertise and advice. In the US it is the National Rural Energy Co-operative Association, in the UK a new similar body would be needed to help local people prepare, finance and run community energy schemes. Such a body would help to galvanise interest in new forms of community ownership of energy generation. 

In the 1980s, a TV advertising blitz featuring a "Tell Sid" message drove home the opportunity to buy shares in newly privatised energy companies. We need a new share ownership drive in the energy industry – community shares giving people a real stake in the generation and distribution of the energy they use. Because the lesson we’ve learnt since the 1980s has been that individual shareholders on their own don’t have enough power to really make the Boards of the big energy companies sit up and take notice of local needs. 

Where the community owns a stake or 100% of the energy that is being generated power and influence is spread more widely across the membership.  Crucially too, the benefits of the energy generated are spread across the membership, helping to keep more of the money the energy generates in the local community rather than ‘lost’ in large profits or high executive pay, often to companies based far away from where the original energy was generated. 

In the UK, community-scale energy schemes are slowly expanding. Although they tend to be based in rural areas Brixton Energy with its solar panels initiative is an encouraging exception. To help drive a more rapid expansion of community-owned energy the government needs to be bolder in the incentives it creates within the energy market. 

Every time a new source of energy – a new power station, a new wind farm or hydro scheme is established the big energy companies have to secure a licence and/or establish a company to raise the finance to drive the scheme. The government could insist through incentives built into legislation that a right is created for local people to invest in the new energy "companies" (subsidiaries in the main of the Big Six). After all why shouldn’t local people, whose ever rising energy bills will have to pay for this investment not have the opportunity of a more direct financial benefit too from the energy being generated in their neighbourhood. 

I understand the power of markets and the benefits of strong competition, but we need to ensure those benefits and power are used for the general good rather than the self interest of a few. Co-operatives offer the possibility of a new "shared capitalism"; ensuring more benefit from the efficiencies and opportunities markets, properly regulated; can create. Energy co-operatives have a far larger reach outside the UK. Isn’t it time there were more opportunities for a new generation of innovative energy co-operatives to emerge here too?

Gareth Thomas is the Labour and Co-op MP for Harrow West and the chair of The Co-op Party

The sun sets behind the chimneys at Didcot Power Station. Photograph: Getty Images
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?