Britain Needs a New Model for Energy

Courtesy of The Morning Star Online:

There was understandable fury around Britain on Saturday morning at the continuing problems in restoring power to more than 1,000 homes — and the offer from UK Power Networks to up compensation from £27 to £75 has understandably provoked further ire.

For those forced to live on takeaways or eat out, to move across the country to stay with relatives who do have power or otherwise fork out cash to deal with their situation, that’s hardly going to recompense them fairly.

And they were asking, rightly, why it is taking so long.

First, we have to offer them our sympathy and best wishes and hope that the further forecast rough weather isn’t going to cause them and others further hardship.

And we need to recognise that many workers, for the companies and the emergency services, also had their Christmas plans interrupted and have been working hard to repair the damage.

But Britons simply don’t trust our privatised energy companies any more, and with good reason.

They know that they are profit-making companies which operate with the aim of maximising shareholder return, not ensuring a secure, affordable energy supply for the public.

Maximising returns is something they are managing rather well, with average profit per household leaping to £53 per household last year, up from £30 the previous year.

But as to a secure, affordable supply, what we need them to provide — well, they’re clearly failing on both counts.

With six storms having hit Britain this month, one of them the biggest recorded for 127 years, this is sadly a situation we’re going to see more of.

No individual event can be put down to climate change, but the experts tell us that we’ll see harsher, more extreme weather conditions and so we need an increasingly resilient, reliable energy supply to see us through.

In some places that might mean putting lines underground, in some places moving grid elements away from floods. It varies, but what we need is investment and long-term planning by people whose priority is a secure and affordable supply.

This is an issue that goes beyond our energy supplies. The privatisation model hasn’t delivered efficiency, hasn’t delivered investment — just think of the Thames “super-sewer” — and hasn’t allowed community ownership that “tell Sid” promised, not just in utilities, but in railways, in prisons and in many other public services.

Instead what it has done has shovelled public money into private hands, seen the pay and conditions of workers cut and delivered worse services. Just look at our expensive, overcrowded trains.

And it’s delivered precious little back in the way of taxes.

We can start with the railways, as Caroline Lucas’s private members’ Bill proposes, by keeping the East Coast Main Line in public hands and taking back others from the train operating companies as franchises end.

But we also need to look at how we can end up with an energy supply system that operates for the common good. Germany offers an interesting model.

There, with Hamburg the standout example in buying back its grid, more than 70 new publicly run utility services have started in the past six years.

This “remunicipalisation” — local control of local services, with local knowledge and the kind of long-term thinking that people with a real commitment to a locality can offer — is an excellent model.

On the energy supply side we also need much more community-owned energy generation.

What’s clear is that — as too many Britons waking up in the cold and dark know — is that our current model isn’t working.

We need to break with the doctrinaire ideology of privatisation, acknowledge that it has failed and work our way towards a new model that works for the common good, not against it.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party.

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