Yes, my energy company makes a profit. So what?

Time for a more objective debate.

Last week the Labour Party released figures highlighting that the major energy companies collectively had made increased profit levels from their generation and supply businesses since the last general election.  This theme is one that requires an objective public debate as the UK faces up to the energy challenges that lie ahead.

I understand that some people, many of whom may be Labour Party members, believe that utilities – like the company I lead – should never have been privatised and so any level of profit is unacceptable.  That’s a perfectly legitimate view to hold, but it is not the policy of any leading political party.  For as long as energy companies are privatised and shareholder-owned companies we are required to pay our shareholders a return on their investment.

That being so, surely the real question – if I may be so bold – is: what level of profit is reasonable for a publically listed energy company to make? Clearly we provide a vital service and so we cannot make unfettered profits.  But we have been very clear for some time now that in domestic energy supply we target a profit margin that averages just five per cent over the medium term.  Recent polling suggests that most people think that is a reasonable amount to make. Indeed, it’s a smaller margin than most food retailers and in recent years our Energy Supply business has made less than that. The overall profits might seem high, but they come from almost ten million customer accounts.

Labour looked beyond supply and also examined the generation side of our businesses.  It’s true that profit margins here can be higher but they are absolutely necessary to support inherently riskier, more complex investments like power stations. And why do we need that investment? To deliver on the energy policy commitments of this government and the ones before it.

For years now energy policy has been aimed at decarbonising the UK’s energy system. The Climate Change Act of 2008, supported across the political spectrum, requires slashing carbon emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050. To do this without drastic changes to all of our lifestyles, most of the burden of this will fall on the electricity generation sector, where highly polluting power stations will have to close and be replaced with more expensive, low-carbon alternatives. I don’t disagree with this aim – quite the opposite – but politicians, the media and indeed the general public must all confront the fact that these policies come with a price tag.

Once you bring in necessary upgrades in the regulated transportation infrastructure, oft-quoted government estimates put the amount of private sector investment needed by 2020 at as much as £110bn. Whatever the final sum, it will require an awful lot of investment decisions to be made. And if each individual investment does not stand alone economically, it cannot be undertaken. Therefore the sheer increase in volumes of this investment will mean that, even if profit margins per investment are not increasing, the absolute level of profit will have to increase. It is a simple fact of economics.

Where the profit then goes is also critical. At SSE we are proud to invest only in the UK and Ireland, and we use the British supply chain where we can too, such as the £500m we put into it when developing our Greater Gabbard wind farm off the Suffolk coast. As a UK-listed company we pay tax on our profits here in the UK (£369m last year), we employ around 20,000 people across the UK and Ireland – many in remote areas where such jobs are invaluable to the local economy – and we also invest in R&D, skills, training and apprenticeships.  

I accept we have a unique role in the UK society and with that privilege comes responsibility. I have also been around long enough to know that Labour’s focus on the big energy companies is a fact of political life in a functioning democracy, but this over-simplification of profits failed to take account of how this profit underpins vital investment and services that help the country to function.  I am not pretending SSE or other companies are perfect, but that must not stop us from having a genuine debate around the future of energy in the UK and how we are going to pay for it through proper economic investment.

For customers, higher group profits will clearly be difficult to reconcile with the increases they have seen in prices in recent years. But this debate is too important to be reduced to just prices versus profits. For all the investment we make, we estimate that only 15 per cent of a typical bill is within our direct control. It’s time for government, opposition and industry alike to have an open, objective conversation about how to meet the challenges ahead of us while protecting customers from rising costs.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Alistair Phillips-Davies is Chief Executive of SSE plc

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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