It was one of the most influential reports ever written by a modern British economist — and perhaps the most rushed.
Stephen Littlechild, then a little-known academic, was commissioned by Margaret Thatcher’s government in October 1982 to design a regulatory mechanism that would prevent Britain’s soon-to-be privatised telecoms monopoly, BT, from exploiting its position and gouging the public.
The work was urgent. The prime minister wished to push through legislation that would enable the company to be sold as soon as possible, making it a pioneer for the privatisation of public utilities that she hoped would create a new shareholding democracy in Britain. She needed the report by January 14 1983, which Prof Littlechild said gave him just “10 working weeks (allowing for Christmas!)”.
His formula “was invented between 5 and 7 January 1983” allowing just a single week “to write it up in a plausible way, test it against the specified criteria, [and] conclude that it was the best available option”, Prof Littlechild recalled.
Fortunately, “RPI minus x” passed muster not only with Mrs Thatcher, but also with BT’s investment bankers, SG Warburg, which thought it vastly preferable to the profit ceiling used by US utilities. “It was politically defensible and even attractive,” recalled Prof Littlechild. It won the day.
The Littlechild formula has gone on to serve as the template for all UK regulation of privatised utilities. In modified form, it sits at the heart of the mechanisms that still regulate prices set by electricity and water companies.
That means it is also at the centre of the divide in British politics, which in the past two years has fractured about the merits of allowing private companies to run essential utilities that are natural monopolies. The implosion of Carillion, which worked on many government construction and outsourcing contracts, has intensified the debate.
After a series of scandals and controversies over poor service, high prices and generous payouts to shareholders, the country that was the global frontrunner in privatisation is rethinking how to run its essential utilities. Almost three decades after they were sold off, critics — and many voters — believe that investors have run rings around the watchdogs set up by the government to regulate the industries.
At the Labour party’s annual conference in September, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, promised to bring “ownership and control of the utilities and key services into the hands of people who use and work in them”.
Labour’s attack has exposed the fragility of public consent for private utilities. An October poll conducted by the UK’s far-from-socialist Legatum Institute showed 83 per cent of respondents favoured the nationalisation of water. For energy, the figure was only slightly lower, at 77 per cent.
“If you look at this list, you see the public most objects to private ownership of natural monopolies — ones where there is little real possibility of injecting meaningful competition,” says Martin Blaiklock, an infrastructure expert and former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s power and energy division.
Prof Littlechild’s regulatory system was supposed to substitute for competition, giving consumers a fair price while also offering private owners incentives to innovate and find efficiencies. Charges were set to give operators a reasonable return on their capital assets, indexed for inflation (the retail price index) less a certain amount each year (x) to spur them to drive productivity.
What makes Britain’s regime different from the one for private US utilities, for instance, is that these returns are not capped. “We didn’t like the idea of an effective 100 per cent tax on efficiencies over a fixed rate of return,” recalls Prof Littlechild. “Margaret Thatcher’s economics adviser, Alan Walters, was particularly offended by the cap. He said: ‘We can’t do this. It’s socialism!’”
Instead, every few years the watchdog estimates the costs the company is likely to face in the next regulatory period. If the company can achieve greater savings, it is permitted to keep 100 per cent of the extra it makes.
This sounds logical enough. It has helped to usher dozens of utilities into the private sector and support huge investment. But critics allege the system has delivered neither the discipline nor the innovation that was promised. They think regulators have been too lenient in setting the efficiency targets that are used to justify extra returns for private capital.
Take, for instance, the water industry, which was sold off in 1989. Cathryn Ross, until recently the chief executive of Ofwat, boasted that her organisation’s efficiency demands had saved consumers £120 off bills (which currently average about £400) since privatisation. That may sound a large number, but it equates to an annual productivity improvement of just 1 per cent. It is well below even the anaemic 1.5 per cent average rate for the UK economy over the same period.
“By giving the companies an easy ride, the regulator has ensured that customers’ bills have risen more than they should have,” says David Hall, director of the Public Services International Research Unit at Greenwich university. In the case of water, they have gone up by about 40 per cent above the rate of inflation since 1989, although the steepest increases took place in the first decade after privatisation.
The Thatcherite privatisations
The first electricity privatisations were in late 1990, when 12 distribution companies were sold off. National Grid Group was listed in 1995
The water system in England and Wales was sold off in 1989. As a key public utility, it has been one of the most controversial privatisations.
Second, regulators have paid too little attention to the way companies structure their finances. Finance costs are a key factor watchdogs weigh when setting prices. Yet they have consistently overestimated these expenses during a long period of falling interest rates.
That, combined with a reluctance to regulate companies’ balance sheets, has resulted in an orgy of borrowing, as this allows owners to achieve “savings” that have more to do with financial engineering than effort and enterprise. Stratospheric debts — including high yielding shareholder loans — have also suppressed tax revenues. Thames Water, for instance, has paid almost no corporation tax for the past decade.
In 1989, the water industry in England and Wales was privatised with no net debt. Yet almost three decades on, it has built up borrowings of £42bn.
All but three of the 10 English water companies have been taken off the stock market by private equity investors — many backed by foreign sovereign wealth funds and pension schemes. In the meantime, all the industry’s post-tax profits have been carried off in the form of dividends. Shareholders’ funds have barely budged since 1989.
A comparison with Scottish Water is instructive. The Scottish utility was not privatised in 1989, but remained in the public sector. Like its southern cousins, it has been forced into a heavy programme of investment, much of it at the behest of the EU.
British Rail was sold off by the government in 1995-97. Passenger numbers have risen sharply, but customer satisfaction remains low.
Facing intensifying competition from private delivery services, the government decided to sell Royal Mail in 2013.
Yet unlike the English utilities, it remains relatively unleveraged. Its borrowings of £3.8bn represent just 48 per cent of the value of its regulated assets, as against the 65-80 per cent that is prevalent in England. Meanwhile, the average bill from Scottish Water was £357 last year — 10 per cent lower than the English average of £395.
Some believe that tweaks to the regulatory regime could make the system function better. Prof Littlechild argues, for instance, that instead of keeping 100 per cent of any extra efficiency gains, these could be split with the customer. “That way there would be some community of interest,” he suggests.
Mr Blaiklock, a longstanding critic of excessive leverage in utilities, believes the watchdog should intervene much more in companies’ financial affairs, which he thinks are unsustainable in the long term, especially if interest rates rise. “The regulator should be given stronger executive powers to intervene in extreme financial engineering initiatives and aggressive tax tactics.”
Faced with mounting criticism, watchdogs are making changes. Ofwat is proposing to alter the payment terms for water companies so that more of their money comes from hitting performance targets.
Critics warn that this will make an already complex system even more baroque. “You have to question whether any system this involved can be transparent, when even people with an interest in getting to the bottom find it very hard,” says Mr Hall. The intricacy of the regulatory process also troubles Prof Littlechild, who notes that it takes about three years to decide the next regulatory settlement. “When we created it, I fondly imagined the regulator sitting down with the companies shortly before the expiry of each period and just setting a price,” he says.
Not everyone is convinced that tweaks are sufficient. Mr Hall argues that the regulatory system is inherently dysfunctional. “There is a fundamental contradiction between the regulator’s duty to protect consumers and its overarching duty to ensure that the companies have enough money to deliver investment,” he says.
Prof Littlechild’s original idea with BT was that the watchdog would simply hold the fort for the consumer until competition arrived like the US cavalry. Permanent regulation is vulnerable to industry capture. “The problem is that the regulator spends all its time talking to the company and its investors,” says Mr Hall.
Ofwat, for instance, has been criticised for its focus on investors rather than customers. While the watchdog sets aside two days a year to give presentations to the City of London, there is no forum for it to meet customers.
While regulators do have the power to strip companies of their licences, this has been invoked only once in the water sector — when the collapse of Enron in 2001 forced Ofwat temporarily to take control of its Wessex Water.
According to Mr Blaiklock, this lack of grip explains why privatisation has failed to achieve its primary purpose — of passing the operational and financial risks for the delivery of a public service to the private sector. London’s £4.2bn “super sewer”, for instance, is financed directly from customer bills, with households rather than the company bearing the risk of a complex project.
Few developed countries have copied the British model in selling off whole utility networks to private entities. In Europe, the model has generally been to separate asset ownership from service provision and to grant private companies the right to operate concessions.
In recent years, doubts about the governance and customer benefits have encouraged other countries to reverse this process — especially in water — and take these concessions back into municipal ownership. A study of French water services in 2004 found that the price of privately-delivered water was 16.6 per cent higher than in places where municipalities delivered the service.
Similar arguments buttress the Labour party’s plans to bring utilities back into public ownership.
Its proponents stress not efficiency, which they claim is much the same in either public or private sectors, but cost and accountability. A publicly-owned utility would not have to deliver the returns demanded by the private sector.
A study by Greenwich university claims that refinancing utility debt and equity with government bonds and scrapping dividends could save £2.3bn a year. That is equivalent to a saving of almost £100 off the average £400 water bill. Public ownership would also remove all the incentives that, Mr Hall claims, encourage bosses to favour financial management over customers.
“These are local amenities supplying a basic service that ought to be properly accountable to local people,” he says.
Other structural options involve introducing more competition by separating network ownership from the services, and auctioning limited concessions. The snag is that this would be extraordinarily expensive, requiring the state both to buy out the existing owners and then retender the operations. Taxpayers could end up paying twice — first to compensate existing investors and then potentially to reward the new operators.
Lastly, there is the possibility of placing utilities in not-for-dividend entities, akin to Welsh Water, which was restructured in 2000. Although they would remain regulated entities, companies could use retained earnings only to invest in their assets or to cut customer bills. Shareholders and executives would no longer be able to skim off all the cream.
There may be no cheap and easy answers to the problems facing Britain’s utilities, but the status quo is unlikely to hold. “What we can now see is that the regulatory regime is not robust enough,” says Mr Blaiklock. “We need to change that.”
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