Electricity ready for switch to free market

Britain's regional electricity companies have all assured industry regulator Professor Stephen Littlechild that they will be fully equipped to deal with the opening up of the domestic market to competition from April 1998, writes Ian Griffiths.

Despite the universal commitment to meet the target, there are still marked differences in companies' preparedness for full-blown competition.

Some regional electricity companies argue that the complexities of opening the market and potential pitfalls for consumers will undermine the project's effectiveness.

Professor Littlechild has made it clear he is determined to force markets open in what he regards as a landmark objective of improved competition in the post-privatisation climate.

From 1 April 1998 the country's 22 million domestic electricity consumers will be able to shop around for electricity from whichever supplier they choose.

The trial introduction of competition in the domestic gas market has brought price reductions of up to 20 per cent for consumers. The saving is expected to be less for electricity customers. Professor Littlechildis monitoring the gas experiments closely. He is acutely aware of the problems that can arise, notably through mis-selling, technology and "cherry picking" of more affluent and profitable customers.