Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of a retail competition framework is the changed dynamic that is created in the regulation of the new wholesale business.
The wholesale business is still dominant in terms of its share of revenue and, because it is now being pre-paid by the retailers, it has no credit risk for its non-household activities. It does, however, now have larger and, probably, more demanding customers: the retailers. The retailers have a clear focus on the end customer – they will succeed (as is the case with other retailers) only to the extent that they keep their customers happy.
A successful retailer understands its customer base in detail and will seek to find ways to meet customers’ needs. Experience from Scotland suggests that customers of the retailers have a substantial interest in more tailored services. It also appears to be the case that the expectations of these customers has increased.
Water efficiency advice has become a basic expectation. More and more non-household customers are having loggers fitted to their meters in Scotland. There is increased attention on more sustainable, lower carbon solutions. The incumbent retailer can no longer say "sorry but we cannot do this" when the initiative might harm the vertically integrated company. It can no longer do this because there will be a retail competitor, not related to that area’s wholesale business, who would offer that service if it is in the customer’s interests and is profitable.
This new framework has changed the dynamic of economic regulation of the water industry in Scotland. The interests of Business Stream (Scottish Water’s retail subsidiary) are now quite different from those of Scottish Water’s wholesale business. Business Stream and the other retailers have to hold Scottish Water – as their supplier – to account so that they can meet their customers’ expectations.
As a result, although still a monopoly, Scottish Water has to face up to five powerful new customers. This is quite a different prospect to dealing with a customer base where only a few of the largest industrial sites had as much buyer power as the smallest of the active retailers.
We expect the retailers to become increasingly demanding over time as customers continue to look for ever more tailored services at ever better prices. This changed dynamic allows us to regulate differently, to focus solely on outcomes and to direct our attention primarily to the satisfaction of the customer base and to ensuring that ex-post returns are reasonable.
The Customer Forum will benefit particularly from having the expertise of the retailers available to it in determining whether it is happy with the levels of service and the prices being proposed by Scottish Water.