View from City Road: Watchdogs must bark coherently

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the rights and wrongs of her appointment, Clare Spottiswoode has hardly covered herself in glory during her seven- month stint as Ofgas regulator. Both in her public pronouncements and in dealings with British Gas and the Department of Trade and Industry she has been guilty of navety, if not incompetence.

Her fluffed appearance before the House of Commons select committee on the environment was one example, her private meetings with brokers and analysts which irritated some institutional investors (even though she allowed no sensitive information to slip) another.

Admittedly, her predecessor, Sir James McKinnon, is widely thought to have gone too far in the harshness with which he dealt with British Gas - an image deliberately fostered among MPs and in the press by British Gas spin doctors.

Sir James nevertheless had an instinctively populist approach which Ms Spottiswoode has managed to undermine with quite breathtaking speed. The most damning evidence of that is the delight shown in her appointment by British Gas, which has come to see her as an easy touch.

The omnivorous giants that are privatised monopolies occupy a Machiavellian world. It is one which Ms Spottiswoode's background as a minor academic, civil servant and small- time businesswoman a bit wet behind the ears hardly fitted her to inhabit.

It has to be said, however, that few candidates would have been equal to the task.

Ian Byatt, her counterpart at Ofwat, was made to look equally ridiculous, out of his depth and generally silly when he appeared before the Environment Select Committee. Civil servants and business people may in any case be wholly inappropriate for these sort of positions.

Concealed behind K-factors and the legalistic niceties of market access are decisions of policy that should be taken openly by accountable politicians, not unelected regulators.

That was something Ms Spottiswoode did put her finger on when she stressed that tinkering with the gas tariff price formula to boost the earnings of the Energy Saving Trust was in fact a backdoor 'green tax' on consumers. Unfortunately, her popularity with British Gas undermined her stance.

If the politicians cannot bring themselves to take the tough decisions, perhaps they should try a little harder to find watchdogs who bark coherently and accountably.