SOL demands: A company that is socially just and tackles energy poverty through a fair pricing system and household energy efficiency investment; a company that is ecologically sustainable through a commitment to selling 100% renewable energy as soon as is feasible, with partnerships with local community generation schemes; and a company that is democratised through a range of participatory measures, from advisory neighbourhood assemblies through to elected board members.
Since launching in December 2015, SOL has successfully pushed new London Mayor Sadiq Khan into a commitment to set up a new public energy company called Energy for Londoners. The campaign is now focused on mobilising pressure to ensure that this new company embodies the vision of energy democracy that SOL is proposing.
The UK is something of a heartland of neoliberal energy policy, with a highly liberalised sector dominated by the so-called “Big Six” corporate utilities. But recent months have offered the promise of something different, with a string of urban governments setting up new public energy supply companies as an alternative to the mistrusted and discredited private sector.
The surprise election of leftist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party offers an opportunity to expand and, potentially, radicalise this agenda. It was in this context that Switched On London was born. The thinking was that a campaign articulating a populist but radical vision of democratised municipal energy could help bring about a progressive transformation of the energy sector by shaping the political climate: both nationally, by influencing the thinking of Corbyn and the Labour Party’s newly reinvigorated left, and locally, through inspiring authorities in towns and cities to set up democratised energy utilities along the lines proposed by SOL.
To do this, the activists who founded SOL set out to capitalise on the political opportunity presented by the May 2016 London mayoral election. The aim was to win a new clean, fair and democratic energy company in the capital and to build on and publicise this victory in order to influence energy politics elsewhere.
SOL’s strategy has been to work inside and outside formal politics in the city: the campaign has worked hard to lobby and build relationships with key decision-makers, while at the same time endeavouring to build a broad grassroots movement uniting struggles across the city. The aim has been to keep these two strands of work connected and mutually supportive. Thus, for instance, an upcoming event will bring the new Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy to a South London community centre – on a housing estate where residents are struggling against a district heating public-private partnership – to give campaigns and community groups from across the city a chance to raise questions, concerns and priorities regarding the progress of the new public energy company.
This strategy has proved successful: the coalition assembled behind the campaign has managed to unite groups that have historically sat uneasily together: trade unions, environmental activists, think tanks and community organisers. And the pressure mobilised pushed all London mayoral candidates into backing some form of municipal energy company, with the pledge from new mayor Sadiq Khan arising as a direct result of SOL’s lobbying.
We’re calling on the GLA (Greater London Authority) – in collaboration with London boroughs – to set up a new, people-powered energy company.
We want an energy company that cuts bills and cuts polluting carbon emissions. A company under public ownership, selling energy for the common good, not for profit. A company with social justice, clean energy and democracy at its core.
- We want an energy company that offers fair, affordable prices, based on a progressive pricing system.
- We want an energy company that does not cut -off access to those who can’t pay and that does not install unwanted prepayment meters.
- We want an energy company that reinvests revenues in measures to address fuel poverty and the cost of living crisis, particularly prioritising ambitious investment in household energy efficiency.
- We want an energy company that treats its workers fairly, meaning it pays at least a London Living Wage, good terms and conditions, secure, unionised and non-precarious work.
- We want a company that commits ambitious public investment in new renewable energy generating capacity (we are initiating research into an appropriate specific investment target). A significant portion should be invested in renewable capacity inside London.
- The GLA and London local authorities must divest their pension funds from fossil fuels, and reinvest this money to fund the new renewable capacity we need. Other public funding sources for new renewable investment to be explored are municipal bonds and borrowing.
- We want an energy company that aims to sell 100% renewable energy as soon as feasibly possible.
- We want a company fully owned by London public bodies (without any private partners) but controlled by people directly.
- To do this, we want to integrate a range of democratic mechanisms, including:
- A board of directors made up of: one third London public officials; one third energy company employees elected democratically by the whole energy company workforce; and one third ordinary London residents, elected democratically with all London residents and all non-London customers given a vote. Board membership must guarantee at least 50% representation of women.
- Annual open assemblies in every London borough, where representatives of the company have to answer questions and take input and advice.
- The creation of an online democratic forum where people can discuss and influence the company’s operations, including through public petitions.
- An obligation for the board to discuss public petitions, if backed by 1% or more of London’s population.
- An obligation for an online referendum on a proposal, if backed by 5% of London’s population.
- 100% transparency in all operations.
- These democratic measures apply to all London residents, regardless of citizenship/nationality status.
Challenges and next steps
The main goal moving forward is ensuring that the GLA stick to its commitment, and that the energy company delivered meets SOL’s redlines for a clean, fair and democratic utility. There are several challenges here.
Persuading decision-makers is particularly difficult on the importance of democratised control: this is outside of mainstream policy norms, and policy-makers worry that more democracy means more bureaucracy and less efficiency.
There is a real risk that the GLA will decide to go for a public-private partnership of some kind. In this case, the challenge will be to build the case for why fully public is best – and to build the power and influence necessary to enforce our position.
If we do get the company we want, a challenge will be ensuring that significant numbers of Londoners switch their energy supply to this, and that this is not just left to middle class consumers with the time and resources to do so. And ensuring that the participatory democratic mechanisms we are demanding allow for meaningful control and decision-making power, rather than hollow forms of consultation, will surely be an ongoing struggle.
Moving forward, we hope to operate on both a smaller and a larger scale. We hope to build more localised power by forming campaign hubs in London boroughs to build support and lobby decision-makers across the city. And we need to start thinking beyond London and exerting more influence in the national debates that we initially set out to shape. This, ultimately, means new campaigns in other cities, as has excitingly already emerged in Manchester.