Sunday, 22 January 2012

British utilities.

Sitting reading the other day, I could hear snippets from the radio which was playing in the next room. One little bit that impinged on my consciousness was something about China investing in Thames Water. Rather like a little dog hearing the word “walkies”, I found my ears pricking up and eventually I got round to investigating.

Sure enough, the China Investment Corporation has bought 8.6% of the company which owns the UK utility group Thames Water. Apparently one advantage of this is that less public money needs to be spent on ongoing repairs and maintenance; they can spend Chinese money instead.

However, I find the whole idea rather strange. I know that this is getting into the strange alien universe of stocks and shares where unreal sums of money change hands buying and selling something called “futures” among other things. Personally I rather like to think that my future is my own and not something that you can put a price on.

I have accepted that my bank, which used to be a building society, was bought out by a Spanish bank long ago. Somehow you expect banks to be in the business of making money. I did rather naively think that banking with a Spanish owned bank might make dealing with financial matters easier while living in Spain. Load of rubbish! They might trade under the same name but effectively they run two separate banks and still charge huge amounts of money for transferring money from one country to the other. On the whole though the UK bit of it seems to have fewer bank charges than the Spanish end where they slap charges on for almost every transaction: pay your electricity bill through the bank and pay an extra €3 for the privilege!

And then there are the airports. BAA, the operator of Stanstead and Heathrow was bought out by Ferrovial, a Spanish company. And it seems that NCP car parks are now owned by Australian bank Macquarie. But once again these are the kind of enterprises that you expect to have profits as a major concern. And, goodness knows, NCP charges so much it must be raking in the profits.

Somehow, though, I feel that supply of things like water, gas and electricity should be dealt within a different way. Oh, I know that we have to pay for it and unless you go down the nationalisation route someone will want to make a profit out of it. And yet, I find myself wanting these organisations to be run by British companies where there is a remote possibility that they might understand our way of life.

Of course I am being naive and idealistic about this. After all, this is the country where schools and hospitals are supposed to run on a business model! But it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

I have already been indignant in the past that some of our electricity supply can be administered by the French company EDF, which I always pronounce according to the French alphabet - E as in the, D as “day”, F as “eff” – instead of English fashion. After all, it stands for √Člectricit√© de France. On further investigation I find that npower has been bought by Germany’s RWE.

But then, it turns out that Thames Water is owned by a company called Kemble Water, a consortium of investors led by Australian bank Macquarie. (So they have the car parks and the water company – this is starting to sound like a Monopoly game.) It’s not just Australians and Chinese, though; in December the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority bought 9.9% of Kemble. And in August a Hong Kong-based investment firm made a £4.2 billion takeover of Northumbrian Water.

It’s almost a kind of reverse colonisation. The rest of the world is taking over UK utilities.

So maybe when the Olympic Games finally arrive in London, there should be a public notice that says (like at the end of those foreign language films which say they are sponsored by TV companies form various countries), “Sponsored by China, Australia, France, Germany, Abu Dhabi ... and anywhere else that has an investment here”.

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