The shamelessness of the energy companies shows why we need a price freeze

British Gas's suggestion that households should simply use less energy is blackly humorous. But customers won't see the funny side.

Following last week’s announcement that SSE, the biggest supplier of energy to Welsh households, is to increase prices by 8.2%, yesterday came the announcement that Britain’s second biggest supplier, Centrica (AKA British Gas) is to follow suit with a 9.2% hike. Though customers will not see the funny side, the press release from British Gas, defending its decision, is a blackly humorous read. It begins with an acknowledgement that Ed Miliband is right: "the cost of living is rising faster than incomes". Then there’s a passage of hand-wringing regret that despite these tough times for customers, our bills have to go up by almost 10% to maintain their profitability. Before, finally, in a statement almost beyond parody, the company’s managing director, Ian Peters, reassures us: "A price rise doesn’t necessarily mean energy bills have to go up too. The amount you pay depends not just on the price, but on how much gas and electricity you use."
And he’s right, of course. You could just not turn on the boiler or the cooker and save a fortune. Why didn’t we think of that earlier? It would certainly make life easier for David Cameron, who, having so spectacularly failed to stand up to the energy companies in the interests of ordinary families, looks like a man who would give anything to make the problem go away.
Since I was having such fun reading the press release, I thought I’d take a look the Annual Accounts and Report for British Gas’s parent company, Centrica, to see if they were as much of a laugh. I was not disappointed.
Sam Laidlaw, the group’s chief executive, concludes his introductory remarks with the cool observation that "Centrica has a robust balance sheet and generates strong cashflows". He’s not kidding. British Gas – the bit putting up their prices today – made a post-tax profit of £1.09bn last year, up from the £1.01bn it made in 2011, though not as much as the £1.22bn it made in 2010. Within that consistent £1bn-plus profit, the sales to residential customers have been looking good too: up to £606m from the £544m posted in 2011.
The bit of the company generating the energy to sell to British Gas (i.e. itself) is called Centrica Energy, and its numbers are even better. In 2012, the energy generation arm made a post-tax profit of £1.2bn, £200m better than the year before and £500m better than 2009, the last year a Labour government was in charge. Little wonder the smiles are so broad on the faces of the board members’ pen-pictures, when share prices have risen by a third since May 2010 and top managers’ salaries with them: Mr Laidlaw’s total remuneration was almost £5m in 2012, his understrapper at British Gas making do with £3m.
What the accounts don’t tell us, of course, is the real amount it costs Centrica to generate the energy which it then sells on to British Gas at the going market rate – a market rate that itself reflects the wholesale prices set by the big six companies. It’s a circular process - in which the only real loser appears to be the paying customer at the end of the pipeline or the power cable, watching nervously as the wheel spins ever faster in the black-box under the stairs. Labour can’t stop the wheel turning, but we can freeze the price of each revolution and therefore your overall bill. And we will.
The entrance to Leicester's British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.