James Ashton: Dictating strategy from despatch box won't help Centrica keep the lights on

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The Independent Online

Outlook Complaints from senior politicians over profiteering, criticisms that bosses treat customers poorly – the predictable reactions to Centrica's results get more and more like those that afflict the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Yet while Westminster has RBS as its plaything for now, thanks to taxpayers' 82 per cent shareholding, Sam Laidlaw has no such formal restraint on what he does at the helm of the British Gas owner.

All he must do is walk a tightrope of sourcing energy, serving customers and paying shareholders. It's clear he is at a disadvantage to the other energy suppliers that don't have "British" in their name, especially after rising bills and a long and cold winter. It's also clear that means he must try that bit harder in convincing people margins really are falling at his retail business.

British Gas has not been very good at explaining what is going on under the bonnet. How many of its customers understand that £126 of their £1,200 annual dual-fuel bill goes on government-imposed environmental charges? The answer is only those who turn to page three of their itemised bill and read carefully.

Mr Laidlaw is still spending £1bn a year investing in Britain, including more North Sea gas production and offshore wind projects coming onstream. But he has developed a new frontier in North America, where Centrica shelled out £500m on a supply business in New Jersey earlier this week. It is part of a plan to double profitability in the region over the next three to five years.

Politicians such as the Energy minister Michael Fallon should be careful how much restraint they want British Gas to employ. If the company was ever forced down the RBS route of having a strategy dictated from the despatch box, we'd have an energy giant shrunk to fit – hardly the best way of keeping the lights on.