This is a simple story of us and them.
It’s about domestic gas, lots of it and none of it. First, let me set the scene.
I am selling a small flat in Crieff, Perthshire, a town once a bustling market place, now on its uppers. The town centre hotel, the Drummond Arms, is emblematic of Crieff’s malaise, closed down years ago, fronds of mangy buddleia sprout from its stonework. It’s not exactly a sleepy town, but it isn’t very exciting either.
Greggs bakery is the lunch stop of popular choice, a hot pie followed by a custard slice. The local toy shop sells not cars but model tractors. If you don’t own a tractor you are probably Amish. The haberdashery store has never changed its window mannequins since 1950. Subway sandwiches is the only international franchise. The plump girl who serves behind the too high glass counter, fast losing hope of excitement, repeats her welcome without feeling. “What bread do you want?”
Modern life of sorts prevails. Cellphone coverage is adequate, cable television arrives when the ice caps melt. There is a garage. A parking warden drops by when the weather is good. Children don’t bother anybody until they get teeth or bored. People manage a smile or two between chores. Probably the worst thing to happen in Crieff is if someone gets a heart attack during a game of charades.
Creiff has outstanding qualities, a beautiful part of rural hedge-rowed Perthshire, abundant farm land, stippled by stone houses and barns, the Famous Grouse distillery. Pheasants and sheep outnumber people and cars. It is home to a very fine, respected school, Morrison’s Academy, where every pupil owns a school blazer and tie, and all hold above middling ambitions for a fulfilling career. At night you can actually see the stars in the sky.
Westminster would not know Crieff exists, or if it did, care.
Holyrood has neither finances nor powers to reinvigorate Crieff.
My mother-in-law lived there many years, happily looking out over the town square and glen beyond from her second floor window, when she wasn’t taking her weekly trip to the bingo hall to chew the fat with old friends. Now and then I’m sure she let her mind wander to memories of her late husband, a much admired Provost of that coach stop to the Highlands.
When my mother-in-law died I gutted the apartment and renovated it top to toe, from carpets to ceiling, from bathroom to kitchen, throwing in a new double bed to attract a young buyers rather than holiday campers. It’s up for sale, almost £10,000 less than its current value. A bargain.
Electricity works everything in the flat. Some years back a gas meter was installed for no other reason than future conversion if desired. It remains unused on a cupboard wall, unconnected to the street gas main.
Last autumn I received an estimate from Scottish Power for gas used. The sum was a little over £50. I wrote to them pointing out the obvious. None used. Flat empty over two years. They replied stating the estimate stood. I should pay or the credit rating gets it in the head. The standard letter was pestiferous. Some sad sack at Scottish Power was on automatic pilot. Familiar with blind bureaucracy I know how to deal with it. I rejected the bill.
This went on two more written exchanges. I sent a stern “take a hike” letter attached to an invoice for my journey to Crieff, my time, and administration costs to take photographs of the gas meter reading at “0000.” I pointed out they could confirm the flat was empty by viewing the inside and outside of the flat on the estate agent’s website. I threatened 3% interest a calendar month if payment was delayed. After a lengthy telephone conversation I received an apology, a cheque for £100, but an enigmatic silence to my rhetorical question, “No more estimates will arrive on my doorstep.” Her silence was ominous.
Sure enough, a month later another bill arrived, this time from British Gas. I hate opening any envelope with a window in it. This one was for £20 “repair and maintenance contract.” Readers might be thinking what I was thinking then. How can a “dead” meter, unconnected to appliances, with no gas supplied to it, trigger a monthly repair and maintenance charge?
What needs maintained? And why charge for repairs not instructed?
When you buy a household appliance, a fridge, a hoover, a cooker, you are given the option of taking out an annual service contract. You can choose to buy insurance. What is different about an unconnected gas meter? Why is the insurance obligatory? That’s easy to answer.
A coalition government at war with the poor and the disenfranchised, enslaved to monopolies and corporations, together with an energy supervisory service, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, (OFGEM) so dumb that after persistent lobbying approved an annual repair and maintenance charge without legislating an escalator application or exceptions.
British Gas, laughing up its pipe all the way to the bank, already rolling in megabuck profits, pushing tariff prices as high as “consumers are prepared to pay,” (so much for competition!) stuck the charge on all consumers irrespective of what appliances they used, or how much gas they used, or in my case, even if you used no gas at all.
How stupid is that?
Not dopey if you think you can get off with it. And in millions of cases, British Gas must be doing exactly that.
Reports of pensioners getting their annual gas bill doubled by the imposition of this iniquitous, unilateral, mandatory charge began to filter into the press. And I caught a radio sequence in an afternoon programme on the plight of one man living alone, nonplussed that he had to pay for something he did not want nor need. Like others living alone on a diet of soup and fingernails he only used gas for cooking his meagre meals, one pan, two gas rings, the charge causing his finances to fall short of covering daily needs, a life more stressful than before.
Muscles taut from the previous bout with Scottish Power, I dashed off my normal invoice, my time wasted by another monolithic corporation. British Gas took the punches longer than their Celtic counterpart. Eventually, I sent off an insulting version suggesting the employee should screw her courage to the mast and tell her senior colleagues something is wrong with “customer care” when they insist on charging for a service never requested, and until gas is supplied to the flat, won’t be used.
I got a call from their customer care department, a gentleman of unsurprising Asian origin, not living or working in Scotland. He was patient and courteous. No, British Gas does not pay invoices from customers heavily inconvenienced. No, the charge must be paid. The charge was approved by OFGEM; there is no escape. If I don’t pay the meter will be removed. And finally, the inevitable threat of a credit rating shot to pieces.
In retaliation I threatened a plethora of responses: to take the issue to court, to allow judgement by the ombudsman, to foment a press debate, and most definitely not to pay. I asked how much British Gas was laying aside for counsel to handle the case on their behalf, and for my counsel and my expenses when they lost.
A few days later the same employee called back. He was forced to work to a system that he could not alter. (Kafka would laugh at that excuse.) To get around it he had credited the account with the sum charged. We were now quits. But as from April onwards the charge would be re-established. He could only credit the account once. He posited no doors would be broken down to read the meter, “that’s not allowed,” no court case necessary.
At least his phone didn’t have the dreaded multiple button system: “If you are deaf, press one.”
This week the first month’s charge arrived. I will pay it because a new owner has arrived for the flat. He will have to face the right and might of a corporation to stick any charge it wants onto any customer without compunction.
Meanwhile, the poor, the unemployed, and the student find themselves at the mercy of a prime resource owned and run by a privatised company unaccountable to the people it serves. Things will have to change. They must change. The neo-con phrase “less government” means companies can do as they please, regulation and supervision to discipline them has been removed.
The usual thing is to say the industry needs a shake up. It needs a kick up the flue. OFGEM – the disinclination to serve its customers fairly is in the name – “markets” – should be beaten with a length of gas pipe for gross naivety.
Next time your gas supply company says, “Can I help you?” tell the voice at the other end, yes, by reducing their charges. And if they insist on charging you, switch to a company that has no standing charges.
For all the ways our London elected representatives lick corporate ass, press three.