Battling it out over electricity competition

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The Independent Online
If they pulled the plug on electricity deregulation, would anyone care? Worse, would anyone notice? The grand scheme to open the domestic power market to competition next spring becomes more shambolic by the day. If anybody is in charge, they are not owning up to it. If anybody, other than the existing regional electricity companies and the two Scottish suppliers, is contemplating joining the competitive market, they are not making their interest known. If anybody can put hand on heart and say exactly how much the whole exercise will cost and how much it will mean off electricity bills, they have not yet emerged into the light of day.

John Battle, who rashly promised that the buck would stop with him and has been backpedalling fast ever since, says he is confident that the April deadline will be met and that there is no need for a delay. This looks like hopeful thinking almost to the point of naivety. Only four of the 14 suppliers, on present estimates, will be ready on time. Can't do it, won't do it, the RECs are saying.

The auditors to the Electricity Pool, Coopers & Lybrand, say we are heading for disaster (though with their other management consultancy hat on they say it will, surprise, surprise, all be a rip roaring success). The major energy users say it will be a shambles. Now the RECs are warning of Armageddon unless the project is delayed until the end of next year. In these circumstances the Government would be wise to delay until the spring of 1999. Nobody in their right minds would pull the switch on the biggest upheaval in the electricity industry since privatisation when demand and output are at their seasonal high?

The RECs obviously have a vested interest in delaying the onset of competition as long as possible and hanging on to their cosy regional monopolies. On the other hand, there are so few new entrants so far declared that they will barely have to lift a finger to defend their territories when, and if, competition ever goes live.

Lord Simon, for one, must be looking askance at the whole sorry episode. One of the main reasons he was brought into the Government as minister for Europe and competitiveness was to help push through the liberalisation of continental energy markets. If we can't get our own house in order, what right do we have to preach to the rest of Europe?