Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

People power makes a difference

Now we can see it for certain. In the face of enormous price hikes, we can do more than swallow hard and dig deeper into our pockets.

After a near universal expression of dismay, the bigger bills due to hit electricity users from October 1 are being subjected to further scrutiny.

Former electricity regulator Douglas McIldoon, who has a reputation for tenacity, is returning to cast his eye over NIE’s justifications for the 33% price hike due to be implemented in a couple of weeks.

Mr McIldoon has been called in by his successor, Iain Osborne, to conduct an investigation after a request from Economy Minister Arlene Foster, who said she was responding to “real anxiety among consumers”.

This is an undoubted example of public outcry having an effect. In some respects, this looked a done deal.

Mr Osborne had already approved the price rise, telling the Assembly’s Enterprise Committee that the

increase was regrettable, but justified because of the spiralling cost of wholesale gas.

NIE Energy insists that the increase is “unavoidable” and insists it will not make one penny in profit from the price increase. That may be, but the increase is so sharp, and comes at a time of such economic pressure, that it’s important that it is examined again.

This, as Mrs Foster rightly says, is a matter of public confidence. She said she hopes Mr McIldoon’s role would help inspire that confidence.

Given his reputation for close scrutiny of the

utilities when he was regulator, it won’t hurt to have a second opinion.

Consumers do have to accept that there is a ripple effect from the current economic downturn that is going to hit us at home. Wholesale price increases — and it’s undeniable that gas has gone up and is forecast to continue climbing — mean we will pay more at our end.

But with household budgets becoming tighter by the minute, it’s of enormous importance that we’re certain those increases are reined in as tightly as possible and that every penny is justified.

The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, which was involved in the consultation process for NIE’s increases, has raised relevant questions about the price hike. They ask why the one-third increase did not vary with a price review, and in spite of the regulator and NIE Energy apparently using different figures for the revenue that will be collected from householders. And, more fundamentally, they ask why household in Northern Ireland are paying double the rate of the rise in Great Britain.

Hopefully Mr McIldoon can provide some clear and pointed answers. If he can find the slightest trims to make to our bills, the exercise will have been worth it.

But there is also a wider lesson to be drawn from this. The pressure of people power can make a difference, which is why this newspaper has launched our Price Watch campaign. We can’t stop inflation or singlehandedly reverse the credit crunch. But we can keep the biggest hikes in check. Together we have a voice that has to be heard.

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