Gas reshuffle solves nothing

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The Independent Online
Gas reshuffle solves nothing

The deck chairs have been shuffled yet again on board the good ship British Gas, as the rubber dinghy is being lowered in readiness to cut adrift the unwanted ballast of those pesky take-or-pay contracts. Judging from the latest batch of board appointments, the black spot is being reserved for Philip Rogerson, the executive director responsible for overseeing the demerger of British Gas.

Not that you would necessarily guess that from yesterday's British Gas statement, which is another masterful example of Economy 7 as applied to the English language. Mr Rogerson, has, we are told, been appointed executive deputy chairman of British Gas and of its proposed successor companies - TransCo International , the bit that will run its pipelines, and British Gas Energy, the bit that will slug it out with the rest of the world in the deregulated domestic market.

Quite what he will spend his time doing is less obvious since the two demerged companies will have their own chief executives (both outsiders) in the shape of Roy Gardner who came from GEC Marconi and David Varney, who has been brought in from Shell to run TransCo.

Another thing you would not gather from the statement, because British Gas omitted to mention it, is that the man from Shell has been winched on board with a pounds 100,000 signing on fee to soften the blow of losing some share option and pension entitlements. Perhaps we should not begrude him his golden hello. TransCo is not going to be a bed of roses, with the gas regulator Clare Spottiswoode in close pursuit. But at least it should be capable of making decent profits.

That is more than can be said for British Gas Energy, which will barely make a bean, nor pay a dividend for the foreseeable future while its market is slowly eaten away by nimbler competitors.

Given his background, Mr Varney ought to know a thing or two about take- or-pay contracts since his former employer is one of British Gas's biggest creditors. That will not be much help, however, as the pounds 40bn of contracts have been lumped into British Gas Energy in an attempt to ring-fence TransCo from this thumping great liability. Yesterday's rejigging of the top brass will do nothing to bring a solution to this particular headache any nearer and there is every possibility that Mr Varney's former employers will insist on some more of TransCo's assets being shifted into British Gas Energy to cover the eventual bill.