To fix our broken energy market, we need Help to Supply

The government should do more to help communities, local authorities and businesses not only produce but supply their own power.

The Help to Buy scheme has so far attracted 6,000 applicants in just two months, and has already enabled nearly 750 people to climb onto the property ladder: another step towards encouraging a "property-owning democracy" and securing assets for individuals and families. Great. But there is a much more radical shift waiting to happen in the energy retail market, and a far greater opportunity to facilitate widespread ownership, not only among individuals, but communities and businesses too. We have heard so much about the need to encourage diversity and competition beyond the "big six", yet seen little by way of policies to put this into action.

In fact, we’ve seen the reverse taking place. The reduction in the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) levy will aid to bring down costs, but only for the larger energy companies, giving them an even greater advantage in winning over customers. And according to a recent report, the 20 month price freeze advocated by Ed Miliband will see smaller utilities lose out. We desperately need policies that will not seek to disadvantage start-ups and smaller players within this sector. The party manifestos - if they are serious about tackling high energy bills – must include measures that encourage innovation, competition and widespread ownership, not stifle it.

Markets overseas show that an entirely different picture can be painted. Germany has 1,100 electricity suppliers, and the average household has a choice of around 72 of these. The four major energy companies operating in Germany (E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall) take up 43.8 per cent of the retail market. Most other suppliers are owned by the municipality or the community, and the rate of "bottom-up" ownership of such services and assets is growing. At the end of 2012, 190 communities had been successful in bidding to run – yes, own and run – their local distribution grid (at least nine of these are co-operatives) and 70 municipal utilities had been founded.

This is not renationalisation or even remunicipalisation, but a move toward a much more constructive, locally-governed infrastructure in which communities ensure transparency, efficiency and good competition. Many of these emerging community-owned suppliers, such as Feldheim Energie and EWS Schönau, are not only offering cheaper tariffs than their competitors, but are seeking and fuelling the prosperity of their locality. In contrast, the UK has 30 licensed suppliers and the largest six take up 98 per cent of this market. No community has yet set themselves up as a competitor.

True, we cannot lift the infamous successes of Germany’s market and immediately apply them to the UK, and neither for this reason can we directly duplicate policies from overseas. But what we can do is not do nothing: we need a strong policy infrastructure, backed by government, that will catalyse new start-ups and new competition.

The Community Energy Strategy, published today, recognises that many of the UK’s communities, local authorities and businesses have an ambition to not only produce, but supply their own power. Ofgem’s "Licence Lite", which was introduced five years ago to make this possible, has so far seen only one application progress. The GLA, the largest governing authority in the UK, has the facility, scope and financial backing to take advantage of this scheme, but many institutions and civic groups don’t. The London Authority’s application is still pending final approval, so we are unsure as to whether even this will be successful.

What we need is a "Help to Supply" scheme. Government, working with the Department for Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem, should set up a series of pilots to work with a range of partners – communities, generators, local authorities, supermarkets, business hubs, Local Enterprise Partnerships – to help them establish a licensed supply company. Along the way, risks, costs and barriers should be noted and policies – perhaps even an alternative to Licence Lite – should be implemented as a result of this learning. This way, we may move from the paltry 30 suppliers we currently have to doubling or trebling this number in the next couple of years, and perhaps even more as the momentum builds.

Our ambitions are right, but our policies are wrong. If we are to take rising bills, competition and transparency seriously, we simply cannot let this opportunity pass us by.

Caroline Julian (@carolinejulian) is Head of Research at ResPublica and undertook a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship to Germany last year to explore the ownership structures of local distribution grids and utilities. The report based on this trip will be published through ResPublica this year.

Lightbulbs on display in an electrical retailer in Soho in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.