Voters don’t like it, but Chinese investment could be key to funding British infrastructureby Peter Kellner / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
The arbiters of popular culture would surely have been unsurprised by the recent furore over gas and electricity prices. A thousand films and TV series make heroes out of doctors and detectives, spies and soldiers, even, occasionally, politicians (thank you, West Wing); but the most prominent fictional boss of an energy company is the greedy, uncaring Mr Burns in The Simpsons.
This month’s YouGov poll for Prospect suggests that Britain’s big gas and electricity companies are not merely unpopular—we knew that already—but that their reputation may be harming the prospects for a sensible long-term energy strategy for Britain.
We started by summing up the recent debate about this winter’s jump in energy prices. Britain’s major energy companies are raising the price of gas and electricity this winter by 8-10 per cent. They say that their prices are determined by (a) general energy prices in world markets over which they have no control, (b) “green” rules and levies imposed by successive governments to reduce carbon emissions and (c) the need to find money to invest in future power supplies and avoid blackouts in years to come. Critics of the companies say that the real reason they are putting up prices is to protect excessive profits, and that they could well afford to keep prices down and still buy energy on world markets, meet their “green” obligations and invest in future energy.
A clear majority sides totally with the critics. A mere 3 per cent think the companies are right, while 30 per cent think the companies have a case but are raising prices more than they need to. However, the next question shows that most people are reacting against the storytellers rather than the three elements of their story. We asked respondents to imagine that our energy was supplied by not-for-profit companies owned by their customers. In those circumstances, big majorities recognise that our gas and electricity prices would need to reflect world energy prices, include “green levies” and generate money for investment—and even add more to our energy bills in order to limit our reliance on imports in the long term.
The figures relating to green levies are particularly striking. All else being equal, people would prefer cheaper energy bills. But there is a broad consensus that embraces young and old, men and women, north and south, rich and poor, that such levies would be justified if they were part…