COMMENT : Messrs Nice and Nasty go to war with Oftel

'Why else would BT have nailed its colours to Labour's mast ... if it did not see a change of government as the best way to sort out its problems with the regulator?'
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The recruitment of Peter Bonfield as chief executive of BT is hard to fault, and makes the succession planning over at Cable & Wireless look doubly incompetent. Mr Bonfield understands information technology, he has run a substantial corporation in the international - and fiercely competitive - computer business and he knows about marketing.

Yesterday Mr Bonfield was denying that his systems expertise would lead to big changes at BT, apart from an order to turn up the air-conditioning, which he found too chilly. But an understanding of the digital revolution cannot be a drawback at a company facing accelerating technical change.

Running the company as chief executive is not the most serious challenge he will face. The really big issue at BT is the open warfare that has broken out with Don Cruickshank, the telecoms regulator. This will dominate the company's fortunes over the next 10 years, since the outcome will affect BT's ability to preserve its core business and to compete with newcomers in the telecommunications industry.

Battle lines were drawn on Thursday, when Sir Iain said Mr Cruickshank was going beyond his regulatory role by siding with BT's competitors and distorting the marketplace, turning himself into a competition authority. Mr Cruickshank, for his part, repeated his long-standing complaint about BT's expertise in getting round the regulatory rules. He is drawing up a new regulatory regime, which if approved, would allow him to define anti-competitive behaviour and order the company to stop it while an investigation takes place.

BT's objections are so vehement that it is now a foregone conclusion that, unless Mr Cruickshank backs down, the whole issue will end up with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for adjudication.

That is bound to be the issue on which Mr Bonfield's stewardship at BT will be judged. He and Sir Iain Vallance, who continues for the moment as full-time chairman, are said to be as one in their views on Mr Cruickshank and it looks as if they are planning to run a double act. The bland Sir Iain will be cast as Mr Nice and the outspoken Mr Bonfield as Mr Nasty, as they attempt to put the boot in to the regulator.

This is a sad and dangerous situation for both sides. Nobody questions the need for a regulator to put pressure on BT, which is still the dominant telecommunications company in Britain, after a decade of government encouragement to competitors.

There have indeed been tremendous improvements over that period in customer service, and Oftel can take plenty of the credit for it.

But this row could have highly unpredictable results. Early this year, the City probably underestimated Mr Cruickshank's power to cause trouble. The share price fall since then suggests this risk has been fully taken on board. But whatever happens, it would be rash to assume the outcome of the row will be to the benefit of BT.

This is why Sir Iain, to be followed soon by Mr Bonfield, is straying into deeper political waters. Why else would BT have nailed its colours to Labour's mast - in that famous deal to cable schools and hospitals announced by Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference - if it did not see a change of government as the best way to sort out its problems with the regulator?

Paying handsomely for personal service

Behind the frock coats, refined accents and embossed brochures, private banking is a business like any other. Right now it is booming. With annual growth rates of 6 per cent in the UK, it makes mainstream high street banking look slothful. Much of the great British public may feel rather poor at the moment, but the private bankers will tell a different story, of unprecedented wealth cascading down from inherited houses, the sale of family businesses, the well-publicised excesses of share options and the telephone number salaries of youthful sport and media super-stars.

But the problem is that every bank wants a piece of the action. As the big banks rationalise high street branches, so they are opening up private banking offices. The sizeable staff cutbacks at Coutts may, at first sight, seem to be inconsistent with this growth, but they fit into the powerful logic of streamlining and efficiency that is driving the banking sector. Even when it comes to pampering the rich, there is no room for the generous bank staffing levels of yesteryear.

Coutts, in particular, has had to adapt. But the fact remains that private banking today is, in many respects, a bit of a marketing trick. There are of course the seriously rich who, when they don't actually own their bank, will deal with the discreet houses of Geneva and Zurich.

But private banking is now being hawked around to anyone with liquid assets of pounds 75,000 or so. In reality, what the banks, which include Midland, Lloyds and Barclays as well as the posher names, are offering is the sort of personalised service that 15 years ago would have been considered standard for high street banking. Now, you have to pay handsomely for the privilege. Some call that progress.

High time that Britain joined Europe

The forces of light and darkness are again on the march, and just for a change Right might win. John Butterfill's parliamentary bill to synchronise Britain's clocks with its neighbours has a good chance of ending the current absurdity. The economic logic for increasing daylight by an hour during winter evenings (and therefore reducing it in the morning) is overwhelming.

According to the Policy Studies Institute, this simple switch to single European time would generate pounds 1bn for the tourist industry and cut pounds 250m off electricity bills. More than pounds 200m would be saved in health service costs due to a fall in the number of road deaths and injuries, and opportunistic burglaries which need the cover of darkness would be cut. Airlines would be relieved of a timetabling nightmare, and business travellers to the Continent could use that extra hour at the negotiating table.

So what's the problem? Scotland and Northern Ireland (and a few Euro- sceptic MPs who believe that the world should fall into step with Britain). No one can feel anything but genuine sympathy for those who have to work in the dark hours of the morning, especially Scottish farmers.

But opinion polls show that not all people in the far-flung reaches are against the change. If the Government is worried about alienating certain areas - particularly Scotland - how about allowing them a different time zone? Sir Alastair Morton, a man who has of course done much to bring Britain closer to the Continent, says: "If Northern Ireland wishes to remain behind and if Britain's Celtic fringe wants to join them, so be it." Other countries in northern Europe cope, adapting businesses affected to the conditions - using more industrial lighting, or working flexi-time. Britain can, too.

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