New ASI Paper: "Utility Gains: Assessing the Record of Britain’s Privatized Utilities"

A new Adam Smith Institute paper, “Utility Gains: Assessing the Record of Britain’s Privatized Utilities” assesses the various utility sales of telecoms, gas, water and electricity companies during the 1980's and 1990's and looks at how government, shareholders and customers fared since the privatisation process. The paper argues that the following benefits occurred for each stakeholder:

For the government – various general benefits accrued, such as a pronounced surge in investment. It benefited financially, both from one-off sales proceeds and from ongoing sizeable Corporation Tax receipts.

For shareholders, like pension funds, have generally done very well, with many privatizations – particularly the 12 RECs – heavily outperforming the FTSE 100. Privatized water stocks, too, have powered ahead. There are a few notable exceptions to this, such as Railtrack, British Energy and British Telecom.

For utility customers the financial benefits have been less tangible – in a period of massively rising wholesale prices there has been little to pass on. But investment has been much higher and much-needed improvements in customer service have been developed. Telecoms prices have actually fallen materially, while domestic gas, water and electricity prices have all risen sharply in real terms. However, domestic energy prices have risen mainly due to much higher wholesale gas costs – not because of private sector ownership.

The paper finds investment in utilities is now much higher than before privatization, especially in the electricity distribution and water sectors. In the latter case, substantial real price increases have helped finance this investment which had been woefully inadequate prior to privatization in 1989. Over the 25-year period, roughly £110 billion has been invested in the water sector, with the overwhelming majority of this sum being spent by the ten privatized water companies. Currently, over £4 billion per year is being invested.

The paper argues that the privatisation of utilities also created an innovation spike, specifically in the telecoms sector. Privatising British Telecom in 1984, it argues, created a new industry as the staid former Post Office subsidiary started to participate in an international marketplace, in which mobile telephony was developing at a rapid pace. Within a few years, Vodafone had become the pioneer of mobile telephony to such an extent that, by 1999, it had become the fourth most valuable company in history within just two decades of its founding. Had British Telecom remained state-owned, it is probable that the broadband rollout would have been delayed even further.

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