The cost of living is a contentious issue and is likely to form a key part of the political debate for the next few years. This debate has been fuelled by the latest announcement by SSE of an average rise in consumer energy bills of 8.2%, meaning that an average dual-fuel customer would see its bill rise by £106. With this increase, the expectation is that the other big energy companies will follow suit with their own price rises.
Energy prices are made up of numerous factors, including wholesale prices, investment in infrastructure and innovation, together with government green energy taxes. SSE has put their price hike down to an increase in wholesale prices, but has also passed part of the blame onto the government by suggesting that the price hikes are required to offset the government’s energy taxes. Will Morris, from SSE said:
We’re sorry we have to do this…We’ve done as much as we could to keep prices down, but the reality is that buying wholesale energy in global markets, delivering it to customers’ homes, and government-imposed levies collected through bills – endorsed by all the major parties – all cost more than they did last year.
The price hike has been met with outrage from customers and the government and has provided Ed Miliband with further ammunition against the Coalition’s policies. However, even this announcement has yet to provide the support for Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices, as discussed in the blog Miliband’s freeze. Customers with other energy companies are likely to see similar price rises in the coming months, as SSE’s announcement is only the first of many. A key question is how will the country provide the funding for much needed investment in the energy sector? The funds of the government are certainly not going to be available to provide investment, so the job must pass to the energy companies and in turn the consumers. It is this that is given as a key reason for the price rises.
Investment in the energy infrastructure is essential for the British economy, especially given the lack of investment that we have seen over successive governments – both Labour and Conservative. Furthermore, the government’s green targets are essential and taxation is a key mechanism to meet them. Labour has been criticized for its plans to freeze energy prices, which may jeopardise these targets. The political playing field is always fraught with controversy and it seems that energy prices and thus the cost of living will remain at the centre of it for many months.
More energy price rises expected after SSE increase BBC News (10/10/13)
SSE retail boss blames government for energy price rise The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (10/10/13)
A better way to take the heat out of energy prices The Telegraph (11/10/13)
SSE energy price rise stokes political row Financial Times, John Aglionby and Guy Chazan (10/10/13)
Ed Miliband condemns ‘rip-off’ energy firms after SSE 8% price rise The Guardian, Terry Macalister, Angela Monaghan and Rowena Mason (28/9/12)
Coalition parties split over energy companies’ green obligations Independent, Nigel Morris (11/10/13)
Energy price rise: David Cameron defends green subsidies The Guardian, Rowena Mason (10/10/13)
‘Find better deals’ users urged as energy bills soar Daily Echo (11/10/13)
Energy Minister in row over cost of taxes Sky News (10/10/13)
SSE energy price rise ‘a bitter pill for customers’ The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (10/10/13)
Energy firm hikes prices, fuels political row Associated Press (10/10/13)
Only full-scale reform of our energy market will prevent endless price rises The Observer, Phillip Lee (27/10/13)
- In what market structure would you place the energy sector?
- Explain how green taxes push up energy bills? Use a diagram to support your answer.
- Consider the energy bill of an average household. Using your knowledge and the articles above, allocate the percentage of that bill that is derived from wholesale prices, green taxes, investment in infrastructure and any other factors. Which are the key factors that have risen, which has forced SSE (and others) to push up prices?
- Why is investment in energy infrastructure and new forms of fuel essential? How might such investment affect future prices?
- Why has Labour’s proposed 20-month price freeze been criticised?
- What has happened to energy prices over the past 20 years?
- Is there now a call for more government regulation in the energy sector to allay fears of rises in the cost of living adversely affecting the poorest households?
For all households, energy is considered an essential item. As electricity and gas prices rise and fall, many of us don’t think twice about turning on the lights, cooking a meal or turning on the heating. We may complain about the cost and want prices brought down, but we still pay the bills. But, is there anything that can be done about high energy prices? And if there is, should anything be done?
The worlds of politics and economics are closely linked and Ed Miliband’s announcement of his party’s plans to impose a 20-month freeze on energy prices if elected in 2015 showed this relationship to be as strong as ever. The price freeze would certainly help average households reduce their cost of living by around £120 and estimates suggest businesses would save £1800 over this 20 month period. The energy companies have come in for a lot of criticism, in particular relating to their control of the industry. The sector is dominated by six big companies – your typical oligopoly, and this makes it very difficult for new firms to enter. Thus competition is restricted. But is a price freeze a good policy?
Part of the prices we pay go towards investment in cleaner and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. Critics suggest that any price freeze would deprive the energy sector of much needed investment, meaning our energy bills will be higher in the future. Furthermore, some argue this price freeze suggests that Labour is abandoning its environmental policy. Energy shortages have been a concern, especially with the cold weather the UK experienced a few years ago. This issue may reappear with price freezes. As Angela Knight, from Energy UK, suggests:
Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.
There is a further concern and that is that large energy companies will be driven from the UK. This thought was echoed by many companies, in particular the British Gas owner Centrica, commenting that:
If prices were to be controlled against a background of rising costs it would simply not be economically viable for Centrica to continue to operate and far less to meet the sizeable investment challenge that the industry is facing…The impact of such a policy would be damaging for the country’s long-term prosperity and for our customers.
Share prices naturally fluctuate with global events and a political announcement such as this was inevitably going to cause an effect. But, perhaps the effect was not expected to be as big as the one we saw. Share prices for Centrica and SSE fell following the announcement – perhaps no great shock – but then they continued to fall. The market value tumbled by 5% and share prices kept falling. This has led to Ed Miliband being accused of ‘economic vandalism’ by a major shareholder of Centrica, which is hardly surprising, given the estimated cost of such a price freeze would be £4.5 billion.
The economic implications of such a move are significant. The announcement itself has caused massive changes in the FTSE and if such a move were to go ahead if Labour were elected in 2015, there would be serious consequences. While families would benefit, at least in the short term, there would inevitably be serious implications for businesses, the environmental policy of the government, especially relating to investment and the overall state of the economy. The following articles consider the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s announcement.
Miliband stands firm in battle over fuel bills plan The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Terry Macalister (25/9/13)
Michael Fallon calls Miliband’s energy prices pledge ‘dangerous’ Financial Times, Elizabeth Rigby and Jim Pickard (26/9/13)
Britain’s labour treads narrow path between populism and prudence Reuters (26/9/12)
Ed Miliband’s radical reforms will make the energy market work for the many Independent (26/9/13)
Has Labour fallen out of love with Business? BBC News (26/9/13)
Top Centrica shareholder Neil Woodford accuses Labour leader Ed Miliband of economic vandalism The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (25/9/13)
Centrica and SSE slide after Labour price freeze pledge The Guardian (26/9/13)
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge is a timely but risky move The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/9/13)
- Why are energy prices such a controversial topic?
- How are energy prices currently determined? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer. By adapting this diagram, illustrate the effect of a price control being imposed. How could it create an energy shortage? What impact would this have after the 20-month price freeze
- Why would there be adverse effects on energy companies if prices were frozen and costs increased? Use a diagram to illustrate the problem and use your answer to explain why energy companies might leave the UK.
- How would frozen energy prices help households and businesses?
- Why were share prices in Centrica and SSE adversely affected?
- Is there an argument for regulating other markets with price controls?
- Why is there such little competition in the energy sector?