Outlook: New regulator can get it right this time

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The Independent Online
LIKE OUR NEW telecoms watchdog, the man who seems to be on a shortlist of one for the job of Britain's first combined energy regulator, has one important thing going for him. Callum McCarthy is available. Not right now, you understand, since he is on an extended walking holiday in the south of France.

Whether it is the walking or the holiday that has been extended is less clear. But as far as full-time employment goes, Mr McCarthy is fit and available for work, as they say down the JobCentre, having quit his post as chief executive of Barclays' US operations in April.

The financial rewards that come with being a regulator - even one charged with doing the work of two men (alright one man and one woman) - are modest by investment banking standards. The going rate for the job of regulating the gas and electricity industries is pounds 120,000 or more for an "exceptional candidate". Even if Mr McCathy fits that bill, the remuneration will still be nothing compared to what he could have earned had he stuck with Barclays.

It is reasonable to assume that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was not exactly knocked down by the rush of candidates applying for the post. In previous job searches, the Government's headhunters have had to comb the groves of academe to find suitable material.

Hardly surprising since the salaries are not competitive with private sector rates while the job itself is a thankless task. Squeezed between consumers who rarely think they get a fair share of the cake, and companies who resent the fact that their prices are controlled at all, the job of regulator is indeed a lonely one.

Henceforth, it will not be quite as lonely as it used to be. In virtually her last act in charge at the Department of Trade and Industry, Margaret Beckett decreed that individual regulators should be replaced by full- time executive boards comprising a chairman and two others. Mr McCarthy's first task as chairman will be his most important one - deciding where the boardroom will be. The choice is between London, the current home of the outgoing gas regulator Clare Spottiswoode, or Birmingham, where the electricity regulator Stephen Littlechild has his billet.

Having run the show for Barclays in both Japan and America, the much- travelled Mr McCarthy may think nothing of shuttling between the two for a while. But ultimately he will only need one headquarters. Staff at Ofgas and Offer would probably like to know whether he kept a pied a terre over here while he was on his travels, and, if so, where.

Once the housekeeping has been sorted out, he has the task of making the deregulated domestic power market work. Given the teething troubles of gas liberalisation, the opening up of the domestic electricity market from this autumn has the capacity to turn into a fiasco of interesting proportions. If that proves to be the case, then Professor Littlechild may be less keen to spend that much time handling over the reins to his successor.

The really big job facing the regulator is to help decide what the energy market will look like in five years time and how many players it will have. With PowerGen awaiting approval for its takeover of East Midlands, London Electricity quite pos