Gas customers in rural parts of Northern Ireland are being charged up to 5% more than city dwellers, it has emerged.
The news has prompted a call for the local gas market to be fully opened to competition so that two-tiered pricing policies can be stamped out.
Jim Allister was speaking after the Belfast Telegraph discovered that Firmus is charging rural domestic and business customers more for natural gas than those in Greater Belfast.
In the city, Firmus claims to undercut Phoenix's price by around 10% — but it has emerged that its tariffs are as much as 5% more expensive elsewhere.
Mr Allister said he was appalled at the price differential, given the current recessionary pressures on consumers and small businesses.
“If the Utility Regulator is there to protect the interest of consumers, how is it that some are having to pay higher rates for gas?” the North Antrim MLA said.
“The market needs to be opened immediately and the sooner we get competition the better.”
Rival firms Phoenix and Firmus operate in the Greater Belfast area, which includes Bangor, Castlereagh, Carrickfergus, Holywood, Larne, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and Newtownards.
However, an exclusivity ruling means only Firmus can supply natural gas to households and small businesses in the more rural ‘Ten Towns’ area, which includes Ballymena, Londonderry, Coleraine and Lurgan, until 2015.
Currently, domestic customers pay 4.3% more in those rural towns than in Greater Belfast, while retailers are charged 4.9% extra. Politicians claim that opening the gas market in 2015 may be too late as small businesses are already struggling with rising bills.
A spokeswoman for the Utility Regulator said that tariffs in Greater Belfast and the ‘Ten Towns’ are not comparable.
“The Ten Towns area is in the early stages of development and therefore is a different market with different prices to Greater Belfast,” she said.
“Firmus was granted exclusivity to supply gas in the Ten Towns area to support the development of the gas network, in the same way that Phoenix was the sole supplier in the early stages of the Greater Belfast gas market.”
A spokeswoman for Firmus said that two tariffs are in place in respect of the two separate natural gas networks in Northern Ireland.
“Both networks are at different stages of maturity and have licences with different terms and conditions under which they operate,” she said.
“Firmus is currently the sole supplier to the towns in our network area and we must operate on a no profit/no loss basis with any return going back into paying off the cost of building the network.”
Firmus’s supply exclusivity ends in October 2012 for large industrial customers.
‘New’ gas towns have been added to the so-called ‘Ten Towns’. Firmus now supplies: Antrim, Templepatrick, Ballyclare, Armagh, Tandragee, Ballymena, Broughshane, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Coleraine, Portstewart, Craigavon, Moira, Lurgan, Portadown, Limavady, |Londonderry, Newry and Warrenpoint.