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 Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Strategy at the thinktank ResPublica.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder