View from City Road: Gas report provokes no explosion

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The Independent Online
So much for that long-awaited joint report by Ofgas and the DTI on the introduction of competition into the domestic gas supply market. It was billed as so politically sensitive and explosive that it couldn't be published ahead of local government elections for fear of the damage it would do to the Tory Party's chances. In the end it proved about as controversial as a wet Sunday afternoon.

There's nothing startling in any of its conclusions. It is impossible to know how many more local authorities might have been lost had it been published as scheduled two weeks ago but it is equally hard to see how this wholly unremarkable document could have made the position any worse. The paper is rumoured to have been watered down for public consumption and it is always possible that the uncensored version contained rather more dynamite. Unlikely though.

The consultative document, by the Department of Trade and Industry and Ofgas, acknowledges that in future some domestic consumers may pay more than others for their gas. It also promises, however, the continuation of a tough price cap for British Gas until 1997 and probably beyond.

What will happen to prices within the cap is still unclear, and has to be until Ofgas reports on yet another study - how much British Gas can charge other suppliers to use its pipes. Until the rate of return is established, talk of precise prices for end-users is meaningless. Some low-income gas consumers will no doubt end up disadvantaged but as one aspiring new entrant to the market, United Gas, argues convincingly, it won't be many - the great bulk of us will gain.

On other fronts, too, the document hardly looks like a script for rabid exploitation. Ofgas and the Government assure us that all gas suppliers will share with British Gas responsibility for special service to the disabled and elderly. All suppliers will also have to take on board the requirement not to disconnect customers for non-payment, except as a last resort. Within reason they will have to supply any customer who requires it in the area covered by their licence.

Quite what all the fuss was about is hard to tell. Certainly not this document or anything remotely similar.

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