This article was published on Bristol24/7.
Picture this. An energy company to challenge the big six. A company that puts its profits back into Bristol rather than the back pocket of its shareholders. A company that sees the city’s most vulnerable as those it most needs to help, not an opportunity to exploit for marginal profits. A company set up and is wholly owned by the council but is given an arm’s length structure to be able to operate commercially. An energy company that makes international headlines by working locally to turn local sewage into gas to then heat thousands of local homes.
This is a vision for Bristol that won plaudits internationally. Bristol was seen as a leader in creative thinking and potential answers to the impossible austerity question posed by successive governments: could a council raise crucial revenue through private council-owned companies while at the same time tackling the core issues like poverty and climate change?
This is a question that today I fear we may never know the answer to. When you have an idea that is this ambitious, this trailblazing, this bold, you need to throw your whole weight behind it. You need unequivocal political support. You need political leadership.
Today we heard the devastatingly sad news that Bristol Energy will no longer supply the city council – its whole owner – which is switching to a British Gas, one of the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. The current Labour administration who made this decision will tell us that they are “obliged to competitively tender our utility contracts” and this is of course, partially, true.
But as Eleanor Combley, the leader of the Green Councillors said today, “Just a few months ago Full Council voted through an updated policy on social value, committing to promote our local economy and environmental sustainability in the Council’s procurement rules”. Despite this, the Council have now chosen one of the Big Six over their own company to supply their energy.
Combley hits the metaphorical nail on the head when she says, “value for money isn’t just about choosing what is cheapest”.
I have no doubt that in the regimented form filling nature of council procurement British Gas ticked more boxes. But this move is the antithesis to the bold alternative vision outlined at the start of this article. It is a regressive move that will see Bristol tax payer’s money going not to the city but to the shareholders in British Gas. It will see our money going to a company that thrives on charging more to the poorest rather than one whose core aim is to support them.
This in and of itself is worrying. But when framed in the context of the choppy seas of cuts to local councils it becomes deeply worrying. What vision does this administration have for steering us as a city through these devastating cuts? Millions are being stripped from council front-line services in short-term budget-balancing moves but the lack of long-term action coming from the Mayor’s Office is deafening. Bristol wants to know if this administration is bold enough in their remaining 2 years to think big and deliver on projects to take forward the anti-austerity vision that it supposedly stands for.
Today’s news that the Council isn’t standing by its own energy company strongly suggests this administration isn’t.