This blog first appeared as a guest blog for Utility Week on 3 April 2013.
The world was supposed to end on 21 December last year in the Mayan Apocalypse. It did not. Some said that introducing a retail competition framework would have a similarly - though perhaps more localised - catastrophic effect. Others said that the reform did not go nearly far enough. Yet, in defiance of these 'end-of-worlders', the market is five years old this week.
Five years on, and a hearty rendition of 'Happy Birthday' later, I believe I can show that the market is operating more robustly than ever. Eight licensed suppliers are now operating in the market, with more (so they promise me) on the way. Scottish Water as the wholesaler works well with the different retailers and certainly shows no favouritism to its own Business Stream. Business Stream has radically reduced its costs and levels of bad debt. And real credit should go to Scottish Water, which has continued to improve its efficiency and its environmental and customer service performance.
We have dealt with exits from the retail market - both voluntary and enforced - and the consequent reallocation of customers and liabilities. We have taken steps to ensure that customer lists are as complete as possible (with an incentive payment for each property identified this can be a nice little earner for the retailer!). And we've developed the market further to allow for choice and innovation in trade effluent, new connections and metering. The market continues to evolve - at present we are working with others to make sure that connection applications can be made as efficiently as possible.
The vast majority of non-household customers have renegotiated their tariffs and levels of service. Customer service no longer stops at the meter! The retailers are running pro-active water and waste water management businesses, providing water efficiency advice, water reuse, effluent management, rainwater harvesting and so on. Key here is that the retailers follow through - staying around to help customers implement these solutions (often being paid for their efforts on a success fee basis).
The wounds are healing nicely! Those who said that upstream reform and business separation would be necessary to see any benefits from a retail reform have been proved conclusively wrong. Competition is not an end in itself. It is a means by which the customer experience might be made better.
In Scotland we are moving on - beyond retail. Scottish Water is now actively looking for situations where changes in customer behaviour can reduce costs and/or reduce water abstraction and improve environmental performance. Building resilience, whether water or waste water, is vital and Scottish Water recognises the importance of identifying any partners who can help - from farmers to smaller companies with innovative technologies, or simply those with the enthusiasm and energy to consider new approaches. Discounts are available to customers who help with this.
For the forthcoming price review, Scottish Water will negotiate (within the Government's objectives for the industry) with the Customer Forum. The Forum consists of both household and non-household members, including the two largest retailers. The outcome of that negotiation would form the basis of the Commission's Draft Determination. In my view, retail competition (and the lessons learned from its implementation) has contributed significantly to Scottish Water's goal of becoming "Scotland's most valued and trusted business".
There is no room for complacency. As with any five-year old, there is still much cajoling and encouraging to be done. But the progress is unmistakable and goes well beyond the purely retail.
Is there a lesson from this experience? My view is yes, but it is not that England and Wales simply adopt what we have done; it is that, hopefully like us, they should think big, but act small. And it is important that those charged with implementation could usefully keep in mind that acting is 'doing' or 'implementing'. It is not wrapping oneself in the comfort blanket of process. How much longer will non-household customers in the rest of the UK have to wait? It is, after all, more than ten years since we first began to establish a retail framework and were roundly criticised by both the Olivers and the Bumbles.
Mark Powles, the Chief Executive of Business Stream, made a particularly important contribution in the panel debate on the implementation of retail competition at yesterday's Water Reform 2012 event. He pointed out that the elephant did not need to be swallowed in one bite. In many ways this is simply a different way of expressing the "best is the enemy of the good" warning that our ex-Chairman Sir Ian Byatt used frequently to give to me.
The market will develop as suppliers and customers want it to develop. The key challenge is to get a workable framework in place that will allow customers to begin to benefit from tailored services that will really meet their needs. As we have explained at the recent workshops hosted by Water UK, much needs to be done in order to get to the point where customers in England can begin to access the sort of benefits that customers are now able to enjoy in Scotland.
It was striking at the conference that many of the messages that we have been seeking to communicate over the past few months have clearly been heard. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty still surrounds the difference between the price cap at wholesale that will, no doubt, be set at a price review and the conversion of that cap into wholesale tariffs that retailers will pay for services.
But back to the elephant.... The context was where meters should sit in the new market (ie with the retail or wholesale business). It has taken us at least two bites to find an answer with which the market feels more or less comfortable. At the risk of repeating myself, there should be no shame in letting the market develop and none of us have 20-20 vision when we look at how things might work in the future.Just as none of us - even me - has a mouth big enough to swallow the elephant in a single bite!!