INSIGHT: Behind the scenes at the Utility Week Congress

Editor Ellen Bennett blogs from the Utility Week conference in London

It’s been a fantastic two days at the Hotel Russell in London, with speakers including three of the big six chief executives, water bosses, the head of the Environment Agency and two DNO chief execs. There’s been plenty said on the stage – and a lot going on behind the scenes. Here are four themes that I’ve been hearing, on and off the record, over the past 48 hours:

  1. Energy suppliers firmly believe they have nothing to hide – and they’re willing to prove it in public. The big six want an inquiry into the energy supply market by the Competition and Markets Authority. They believe this will exonerate them of overcharging or other anti-competitive behaviour, and bring some balance back into the public debate. They also point out that the independent experts who would make up an inquiry panel would not have ulterior motives – unlike politicians, particularly in the run-up to an election. The companies are actively considering referring themselves to the CMA, and if I was a betting woman, I’d put money on it happening within the next few weeks.
  2. It’s not just the energy companies that say Ed Miliband’s proposed price freeze is unworkable. One of my highlights of the Congress was hearing DECC director general of energy markets Simon Virley say on stage that it was “extremely difficult to see how a price freeze would be consistent and compatible with EMR”. Privately, other individuals that might be expected to remain neutral are repeating this message – and several speculated that the electorate is too smart to fall for quick fixes and cheap gimmicks.
  3. With all the focus on affordability, social responsibility is slipping down the agenda. It looks as though the government is prepared to grant an extension to ECO in its second phase, from 2015. Meanwhile, there has been little discussion of social tariffs in water, and no onstage mention of the difficulties the UK’s welfare reforms are creating for those in fuel and water poverty. Over dinner, I hear that benefit cuts are causing some vulnerable customers to self-disconnect. Could they be the biggest, and potentially most tragic, losers from this relentless drive on affordability?
  4. Scaling back green subsidies is top of the agenda for the Tory party. I hear that Oliver Letwin, the go-to man for tricky policies, has been knocking on the doors of the energy companies, asking for ideas on how to cut bills. No matter what opposition he meets from the Lib Dems, and particularly energy secretary Ed Davey, expect movement here soon.