When the huge subsidy payments were first introduced, we could see how installing solar panels might make sense if you paid for them yourself.
If you did, you would see a fall in your energy bills and you would get to sell energy you couldn’t use back to the grid. The whole thing would have made you a tax- free and inflation-linked return of about 10% a year.
However, we really couldn’t see how it would make much sense if you used one of the rent-a-roof companies to put a panel up for you. Sure, you might save around £70 a year on your bills. But we were concerned that having panels on your roof might hit the resale value of your house. It turns out that we hadn’t even begun to realise the extent of the potential problem. John and Rebecca Welton had panels installed on their roof by a firm called My Energy Station (MES). MES was to pay for the panels and harvest the astonishingly generous feed-in tariffs. The Weltons were promised free electricity from the panels during daylight hours (apparently around £150 worth). Their mortgage provider okayed the deal. But then they tried to remortgage on to a cheaper deal with the Skipton Building Society. No go. Skipton told their broker it won’t offer mortgages on houses with a solar lease in place. It was the same story everywhere else they tried.
The whole thing has turned out to be a nightmare for the Weltons. And a very expensive one at that: according to a representative of My Energy Station, the couple can buy out of the scheme for £15,000, which would solve the problem. Perhaps it would, but I can’t help but think that if the Weltons had had £15,000 to spare in the first place, they would have been unlikely to hand over the rights to their roof and the sun above it for 25 years for a mere £150.
Should We End The Great British Sell-Off?
Has Britain made a mistake allowing so many of its great companies to be sold to foreigners? Take public services: we tend to believe that energy companies and the like, though mostly privatised, still put the public interest first. Yet roughly half of all our essential services, from water to bridges and ports, now have overseas owners. These owners are not as concerned as a British company would be about public opinion. They owe no particular allegiance to Britain; they just want to make fat profits for their shareholders.
Scottish Power is a good example. Now owned by the Spanish firm Iberdrola, it is continually infuriating its customers with price increases. Yet it has piled up such vast profits that it has just made an £800m loan to a sister company in America. Its situation in America, however, where Iberdrola also supplies gas and electricity, is very different.
There it has been unable to introduce dramatic price hikes for energy consumers. Why? Firstly, because in America different states and cities retain strict controls on gas and electricity prices, and secondly, the US states demand full financial disclosure - such as details of salaries paid to company executives - making it much harder to run up huge profits. So while energy companies can milk British consumers, they can’t milk American ones. No wonder foreign companies flock to Britain and generally give the US a wide berth.
Public services are only part of the picture. In total, foreign companies (exploiting lax regulation and liberal takeover rules) acquired £30bn-worth of British enterprises that rose to a value of £54.5bn. At this rate, it’s been said, it won’t be long before we’re all working for foreign companies.
But when anyone dares question the great British sell-off, he or she is instantly labeled a xenophobe.
Ironically, though, we seem to be unique in our supine attitude to selling off our crown jewels. France has always fought to stop key technologies falling into foreign hands; Spain works hard to hold on to its energy companies; and while India has bought British companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, it won’t allow British firms to take full control of Indian companies. As for America, the supposed champion of free trade, it won’t permit foreigners to buy airlines or TV companies and jealously guards its oil companies.
No one is arguing that foreign takeovers should be blocked, but surely we should try to limit further damage - introducing a vetting process for foreign deals, for example. Instead we carry on cheerfully auctioning off everything, while continuing our love affair with banking and financial services. Meanwhile, the tragedy is that tens of thousands of jobs have gone. Crucial skills have been lost - probably for good. And the strategic heart of British manufacturing has been ripped out. But never mind: bankers and foreign shareholders are doing just fine.