Posts Tagged ‘Power Companies’

G.D.H. Cole on the Nationalisation of the Utility Industries

March 22, 2016

I found these arguments for the nationalisation of the utility industries in G.D.H. Cole’s 1942 book, Great Britain in the Post-War World (London: Victor Gollancz).

Road and Rail

But these two types by no means exhaust the list of industries and processes which call for early socialisation. The third group consists of industries which, though they include too many separate units to fall under the first group, have nevertheless been shown by practical experience to be incapable of serving the public interest under private enterprise. The outstanding member of this group is the coal industry, which, unable to create a monopoly by its own efforts, has been erected into a private monopoly by legislation, under conditions which have improved its own profits without providing any better for the public service. To this group belong also the public utility services – railways, electricity, gas and water-which are, like the coal industry, so essential to the satisfactory working of the other industries and services and to the health and comfort of the community that inefficiency in their conduct is intolerable and their exploitation for private profit plainly against the public interest. the industries and services in this group are already in various stages of transition from private to public control. The railways resemble the coal industry, in that they have been erected into a virtual monopoly by legislation, after having failed to achieve monopoly by their own efforts. they differ from coal in that no sooner had the State made them into a capitalist monopoly than this monopoly began to break down on account of the developing competition of road transport. But this, so far from improving the situation from the public standpoint, has led to chaotic competition between the rival means of carriage. The railways, tied down by rate-fixing regulations which were intended as safeguards against the abuse of their monopoly, have been unable to adapt their rate structure so as to achieve a sensible distribution of traffic between road and rail in accordance with relative costs; and the road transport agencies, having begun to threaten the railways with bankruptcy, have in their turn been hobbled by restrictive licensing regulations designed to prevent them from capturing from the railways the amount of traffic which would have gone by road under conditions of unrestricted competition.

There appears to be no way out of this impasse but by co-ordination between the two transport agencies, so as to provide a single carrying concern which will transport goods by road or rail according to its own judgement of expediency and cost. But it is clearly out of the question to place this power of judgement in the hands of a profit-seeking monopoly; and there is accordingly a clear case for the unification of both forms of transport under public ownership and control.

Water

Of the public utilities, usually so called, water supply is pre-eminently a public health service, though it is also of great importance to industry. It is already for the most part in public hands; and the problem which it presents is mainly that of extending adequate supplies of pure water to those areas of the country which are at present without them- mainly the rural areas. This clearly will not be done by private enterprise: nor is private enterprise a likely way of ensuring that proper use is made of local resources before water is brought from a distance, or of securing a right allocation of distant sources between rival claimants. It is, moreover, a clear point of principle that public health services ought to be publicly operated and not made the sport of private interests.

Electricity

Electricity supply is already partly socialised, under the Central Electricity Board, which controls main-line transmission; and a large part of the business both of generation and of retail distribution of current to consumers is already under municipal control. But there remain both a number of large private Power Companies, generating current which is sold both to big industrial consumers and to municipal and private distributors, and also a large number of interlocked private companies engaged in generation and distribution. In addition, a number of big concerns, including railways, own their own power-stations. It seems clear that the extremely complicated provisions under which the Central Electricity Board, instead of operating its own generating stations, has to buy current from Power Companies and from municipal and private stations and then re-sell it, often to the very concerns from which it has been bought, is uneconomic and foolish, and that it would be very much better for the Central Electricity Board to take over the whole business of generation, except perhaps where a private station exists solely for supplying the big industrial enterprise which owns it. Given this unification, it would be possible for the ‘Grid’ to institute a national system of charges throughout Great Britain; and the task of electrifying the countryside and the remoter areas generally would be immensely simplified. I do not suggest that the Central Electricity Board should take over the job of the retail distribution of current, which would probably be best organised on a regional basis, under public ownership by some sort of Joint Board or ad hoc authority for each region, subject to a general system of national co-ordinating control. What is clear is that there is no room in this industry for the continuance of private profit-making. The case is one for complete unification of the basic supplies, and for regional public control of the end nearest the consumers.

Gas

Gas supply, again, is already under municipal public ownership in a considerable number of areas. But there are both very big private concerns, such as the Gas Light and Coke Company, and many smaller private concerns, often controlled by the larger companies or holding companies which have bought out the original owners. There is, I think, no clear case for a national unification of the gas supply service, which is destined to remain mainly local. Only in a few areas is long-distance transmission of producer-gas from industry likely to be practicable. Indeed, it becomes less practicable as industries achieve greater efficiency in using up gases that formerly ran to waste. Nor is there any necessary economy in increasing the size of gas undertakings beyond a certain point, which is fairly soon reached. The economy that is important is that of unified technical administration and research; and this can probably best be achieved by regional rather than national consideration. The right solution seems to be the amalgamation of gas undertakings on a regional basis, under regionally unified technical direction. And this could best be achieved by regional public ownership, parallel to the ownership of the system of electricity distribution.

Village Power Companies, the Spencean Land Plan and the Bulgarian Peasants’ Party

May 29, 2014

A village was in the news last week for setting up its own solar power company. I’ve forgotten which programme it was on. It could have been the local news, Points West, on the BBC 1 for this part of the West Country, or, alternatively on the One Show. The village had initially been intended for fracking, but the villagers had examined that and very firmly decided against it. They had turned instead to solar power. They had set up a massive array of solar panels, which not only provided the village with its own energy, but also sold some on to the national grid. The power company was owned by the village as a whole, and each villager received a dividend from the profits generated by the company.

The feature was accompanied by questions about the practicality of such schemes. It was pointed out that you needed an awful lot of solar panels and would have to wait several years before the investment paid off. The number of solar panels required were so great, that it was well beyond the ability of a single person or family to afford. There were also questions about whether individual villagers should be included in the scheme, if they didn’t want to. The schemes’ inclusion of all the villagers made this a possibility, though the organisers made the point that because of the way it was actually set up, this didn’t actually happen.

Very many people now have solar panels on the roof, providing them with cheap electricity, or selling it to the electricity companies. This was the idea expanded from a single household to a whole community. Way back in the 1990s New Scientist had also carried a story about scientists working to develop power units, which would allow household to generate their own electricity and sell also sell it to the power companies, very much like the system with household solar panels.

It also reminded somewhat of Thomas Spence’s land plan. Spence was an early late 18th and 19th century Socialist. He advocated reforming Britain into a federation of autonomous parishes. Each parish would own the land in common, with the profits from the rents given out each quarter day to all the parishioners, whether men, women or children. It was effectively a form of land nationalisation, with the land turned into a co-operative.

It also reminded me somewhat of the programme of the pre-Second World War Bulgarian peasant party, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union under its leader, Stamboliiski. BANU weren’t Socialists. They strongly supported private property, but believed in an egalitarian world where each individual would own enough, with no one having too much or too little. But just as humanity had an individual dimension to its nature, which demanded private property, it also had a social aspect with required co-operative action. They thus advocated that the Bulgarian peasant farmers should unite in a system of co-operatives that would allow the country to develop and enjoy modern prosperity.

R.J. Crampton describes this part of their ideology this in the book A short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 87.

It was only in 11918 that BANU adopted an official programme, the ultimate objective of which was to create an egalitarian society based upon private ownership of the means of production and the absence of the exploitation of one man’s labour by another. The focus was primarily but not solely upon the peasantry. The party’s, and especially Stamboliiski’s vision, was of a society in which no peasant owned too much and none too little land, in which they lived in clean, modernised villages furnished with electricity, communications and recreational facilities and a developed educational system. Though private property was to remain the basic form of ownership – Stamboliiski had once described it as ‘the motive force for work and progress’ – individual properietors were to help each other through the cooperative system, which was to provide credit, to store harvested crops, and to market produce. The cooperative idea was a fundamental aspect of Agrarian ideology, and was meant not only to provide material benefit, but, through that provision, to lead to the evolution of new forms of civic political morality and organisation. Stamboliiski’s long-term vision saw a society in which all producers had voluntarily joined the cooperatives, and in which the latter had become so influential that they provided the basis for local government and administration. Cooperation was not only to provide a new form of local organisation, but could, it was felt, even lead to the merging of nation-states into a free association of peasant communities – a true peasant, or green, international.

It seems to me that the village power company in rural England was merely a modern form of Spence’s land plan and BANU’s village co-operatives, except whereas Spence had based his utopian society on communal land, this was based on communal power. Nevertheless, it also shows that as society and technology develop, the old, Utopian Socialist and radical ideas return. They are still relevant, even in the Tories’ supposedly new age of cut-throat Thatcherite individualism and private enterprise.