Utility firms must cut bills

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ED MILIBAND clearly believes that, even if voters can name few other Labour policies, his pledge to tackle soaring household utility bills has struck a chord with the public, as well as hitting a few nerves in Downing Street.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Mr Miliband has been emboldened to go even further, promising yesterday to “reset” the energy market and break up the so-called Big Six suppliers.

Water companies, too, have been in the Labour leader’s sights and he will no doubt claim credit for Yorkshire Water’s announcement that planned price increases were being cancelled, household bills would be capped in line with inflation and less money would be returned to shareholders.

In reality, however, no one has done more to shine a light on Yorkshire Water’s financial affairs than the Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, Julian Smith, who has launched a series of scathing attacks on the company, highlighting its huge salaries, its operating profit last year of £331m, the quadrupling of its dividend payout to shareholders 
and the fact that, despite 
its enormous profit, Yorkshire Water failed to pay any corporation tax whatsoever.

However much the company might try to play down the suggestion, it is unthinkable that the public anger generated by these revelations played no part in Yorkshire Water’s placatory announcement yesterday, or in similar pledges being made by other water companies.

Even so, customers in this region will be keeping their eyes on Yorkshire Water, ensuring that it lives up to its promises to invest more of their hard-earned cash in meeting householders’ own priorities, such as plugging leaks, providing flood protection and ensuring a high quality of drinking water. They will also, of course, be taking a keener interest than usual in any announcement of changes to its future tax arrangements.

For the simple truth is that the growing concern over utility bills goes much further than the pettiness of party political arguments.

At a time when householders are struggling badly with the cost of living, it is crucial that companies are seen to work with customers to reduce future payments rather than endlessly feeding profits and salaries which are growing to a size where they show nothing but contempt for the people who are actually providing the money.

Flood of concern: Properties still left vulnerable

SO LONG in the gestation was the Government’s deal to provide flood insurance for those properties most at risk that it was always likely to be a most difficult birth.

Sure enough, when the agreement finally saw the light of day earlier this year, the results seemed less than ideal.

It is a huge relief, of course, that the agreement solved the most urgent problem of providing cover for the vast majority of properties deemed uninsurable, thanks to a levy on household premiums. It could hardly be called an entirely fair solution, however, as it excluded any properties built after 2009, as well as private businesses.

In the updated details published yesterday, the 2009 restriction remains, justified – according to the Government – by the fact that it will deter developers from building new houses on flood plains.

Recent rainfall patterns, however, show that remarkably few areas of the country can be deemed to be at no risk of flooding whatsoever. Therefore, even new homes not in areas officially at risk of floods are in danger of being left vulnerable.

By the same token, many business owners will again be disappointed, particularly those in rural districts which are often the very areas that have been most prone to flooding in recent years.

While such concerns are worrying, however, another thought should perhaps be borne in mind. Considering the bitter and lengthy arguments that have gone on behind the scenes, it is remarkable that this long-awaited document, for all its anomalies, exists at all.

Food for thought: Archbishop’s Advent message

FEW things bring home the seemingly persistent rise in the cost of living quite like the imminent approach of Christmas.

Amid the growing worry of how presents can possibly be afforded when there are still household bills to be paid, however, the Archbishop of York has reminded us of the uncomfortable truth that there is always someone even worse off.

The huge growth in the popularity of food banks is a stark illustration of the number of people for whom the purchase of Christmas presents comes a poor second to the necessity of finding enough food to eat.

The number of food banks, however, as well as being a warning of the imbalances in British society, is also a reminder of something far more encouraging.

As Dr John Sentamu says in the first of his Advent messages in this newspaper, the rise of food banks and other charities concerned with helping the neediest in society is a sign of just how many people are willing to respond to the plight of their fellow human beings.

The number of helpers, of course, can never be enough. But the fact that they are there shows how it is not only in the season of goodwill that the spirit of Christmas flourishes.