Comment: Utilities met their Waterloo overseas

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Running a utility is such a dreadfully dull job, though not one without its financial compensations, as the relentless tide of boardroom excesses among the privatised water and electricity companies has taught us. How much more fun it is to get away from the dreary world of electricity pools, distribution price reviews and K factors and do a spot of business instead in Brazil, or Thailand or perhaps even Pakistan.

Fun these overseas adventures may be, quite apart from clocking up the Air miles. But as for being a profitable use of shareholders funds, much less in the interests of their captive customer bases back home, forget it.

The track record of our utility companies when it comes to foreign endeavour is one of near universal and unmitigated disaster. The latest company to come a cropper is the National Grid, which has had the rug pulled rather abruptly from under its feet in Pakistan. The pounds 400m contract it thought it had from the former government of Benazir Bhutto to build a power transmission network turns out not to be worth the paper it is written on.

The collapse of the project follows in a grand tradition. Thames Water and United Utilities have both had their fingers expensively burnt overseas and Anglian Water has run into a maze of problems in Brazil, an episode about which a great deal more has yet to be told.

If the managers who run our utilities really want to try their hand at being proper businessmen operating in competitive markets, then they should find other employers to experiment with. It is the excess profits that the utilities have reaped since privatisation which has bankrolled these hairbrained sorties into overseas markets. And if Labour's windfall tax has one thing in its favour, it is that it will surely put a stop to such profligate behaviour.