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FOCUS: "Eye-watering" prices inevitable as Bailiwick governments fail to engage

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Thursday 16 June 2022

FOCUS: "Eye-watering" prices inevitable as Bailiwick governments fail to engage

Thursday 16 June 2022


The Managing Director of Sark Electricity Ltd (SEL) has written a damning letter about the lack of support for the beleaguered utility as political representatives from Sark and Guernsey fail to engage with him. Express spoke to Alan Witney-Price in person and dug into the story behind the controversial energy provider…

The fuel subsidy for electricity is set expire on July 1 and Mr Witney-Price has personally paid for this over six months at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. An agreement over the proposed nationalisation of SEL remains unfinalised and Sark’s Chief Pleas and the States of Guernsey declined to comment on any of Mr Witney-Price's claims.

When asked what would happen if there was no resolution by July 1, Mr Witney-Price said: “The price goes up, the new tariff is eye-watering… but it’ll still be my fault." 

Mr Witney-Price distributed a letter to all of Sark and Guernsey's politicians, Sark's Seigneur, and several other stakeholders last week titled ‘A Damning Example of Cut Price Democracy within the Crown Dependencies’.

In it, he urged Chief Pleas, Sark’s parliament, to engage and pass The Electricity (Sark) Law 2020 so that necessary maintenance works to the islands grid could be undertaken, withdrawing their nationalisation plan in the process.

He said of Chief Pleas over the last 18 months: “They’ve done nothing, there are no negotiations.”

“I’ve been begging; the grid’s just going to fail, and something has to be done.” 

Sark_Electricity.png

Pictured: Mr Witney-Price said Sark has had high priced electricity for decades and doubts that consumption of electricity would increase if unit prices were cheaper.

Background

Chief Pleas agreed to purchase SEL in June 2021. It previously proposed nationalising the utility in November 2018, when pricing laws were not in effect. SEL’s aged infrastructure has required replacing throughout this period.

Regulations, set by independent Price Commissioner Dr Anthony White, maintained the price per unit on the island for three years, but these expired in December 2021.

A meeting occurred between SEL, Chief Pleas, and a representative from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on October 19 2020. Mr Witney-Price claims all parties committed to implementing the 2020 Electricity Law as a priority among several other action points to maintain the grid.

But he says nothing substantial has materialised since that meeting.

A price consultation recommended reasonable charges of 56-54p for 1.5million units sold. Mr Witney-Price maintains that approximately 200,000 units of electricity consumed on Sark are not sold by SEL, which is unaccounted for in the pricing structure. 

But Dr White says electricity tariffs, including those who self-generate, were part of the arrangement when Mr Witney-Price purchased the utility in 2020.

An independent representative to oversee negotiations has not been appointed by Chief Pleas to date, despite the government offering assurances to SEL that an individual would be appointed in November 2021.

Mr Witney-Price also says Sark’s government has intended to remove Dr White from his role as Commissioner since March 2021.

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Pictured: 19 homes in the north of Sark have been cut off from the grid since October 2020 due to disputes between SEL and landowners.

The 19 homes

SEL was compelled to cut a cable supplying electricity to 19 homes across seven tenements in October 2020. Those properties continue to be powered by temporary generators to this day.

The cable crossed over three separate parcels of land along the road, each owned by separate entities - therefore three separate wayleaves were required before maintenance could occur.

A wayleave was refused for one of the roads owned by Chief Pleas, according to Mr Witney-Price. Another private landowner also denied SEL permission to undertake the works.

The ownership of the third area of road immediately before the 19 homes is in dispute and is linked to a lack of historical conveyancing of the area.

Express understands that during the meeting with the MoJ, it was suggested that the Seigneur, the head of Sark, could have the power to allow the essential works for the 19 homes to proceed, and that conversations would be entered into with the private landowners to maintain the grid.

That also didn’t materialise. 

Mr Witney-Price said the lack of an electricity law prevented SEL from keeping the cable in operation, and he had no choice but to disconnect the properties.

“If they deny us the right to put the cables in, then we can’t put the cables in,” he said. “I accepted I didn’t have the right.”

He said he didn’t launch a legal challenge since he would have lost and incurred “huge” legal fees.

Guernsey can apply for wayleaves on private roads since they are legally permitted to maintain the electricity grid, even if it is against the wishes of the landowner.

Dr White argues that “SEL’s inability to secure wayleaves should not be a limiting factor when considering the urgently needed replacement of generators".

Sark electricity

Pictured: The MD of SEL says he has been unable to get permission for wayleaves in order to replace electrical cabling in certain parts of the island.

Renewables

At the start of June, a report into SEL commissioned by Dr White found Sark’s electrical infrastrure to be old and obsolete.

Dr White said: “A new system of electricity generation and distribution, as described in the report, would not only ensure a more reliable supply but could also bring cost and environmental benefits to customers and the economy of Sark generally."

But Mr Witney-Price said he has been writing “forever” to Chief Pleas about establishing renewable projects in the island to all government committees, initiatives he is keen to undertake. 

“They have never replied to these,” he said, alleging that the Policy & Finance committee had instructed the other committees “not to engage”. 

He said he needs government permission to access and survey the seabed before considering tidal generation or cable laying.

He also said private micro-generation is not a contributing factor to unit prices, saying “it has nothing to do with SEL’s pricing strategy”. This, however, is disputed by Sark’s Price Commissioner.

sark electricity

Pictured: Much of SEL's equipment is in urgent need of replacement. Sark is still powered predominantly by diesel generators. 

Secondary energy provider

In his recent letter, Mr Witney-Price said: “In the last few weeks, despite repeatedly asking SEL to negotiate in good faith, [Chief Pleas] began promoting its plan to enter into direct competition with SEL and to create its own independent generation and distribution network; to be funded apparently, like so much else in Sark, by the Guernsey Taxpayer.”

Mr Witney-Price argued that if Chief Pleas were to establish a secondary energy provider and grid, it would necessitate the passing of the 2020 electricity law, and the cables would need to be laid in different locations. 

“They’re also going to have to issue wayleaves... these are all the things I’ve been asking for,” he said.

In those circumstances, he said SEL would either “switch off, sue, or undercut on price".

“I can drop the price dramatically, they can’t compete. We have to talk, but how do we do that if they’re putting in their own electricity grid?”

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Pictured: The cable suppling electricity to Little Sark is in need of replacement.

“How am I not acting responsibly?”

Mr Witney-Price said that each month he personally subsidises SEL out of his own pocket and in April he shelled out more than £12,000 to continue operating.

Mr Witney-Price said he only wants to know what approach SEL should take to replace the equipment, but: “They will not reply to our letters."

He also said the cable which supplies Little Sark “needs urgent replacement”. 

Again, he reiterated: “[Chief Pleas] will not reply, won’t answer."

Mr Witney-Price agrees that the cable needs replacing and wants permission to do so: “I don’t think the issue is that they won’t engage; it’s that they don’t know what to do,” he said. 

sark chief pleas

Pictured: Mr Witney-Price believes Sark do not have the administrative capability or resources to successfully nationalise a utility.

Constitutional concerns

Mr Witney-Price called Sark’s government and constitution “not fit for purpose.” He questions the interest of the MoJ in the situation, who agreed to provide a watching brief.

“The Ministry of Justice and Government House have allowed [Chief Pleas] to act appallingly,” he said.

“Who do the residents look to when this situation is placed on them?”

He suggested Sark’s own tax declaration highlights it is a jurisdiction incapable of administrating and managing its own affairs.

“But Sark can nationalise a major utility,” he said. “Why are differing levels of judicial prudence acceptable in the United Kingdom?”

“All I have done is what I’ve already been doing; writing a couple times a week to Chief Pleas, the Ministry of Justice, and Government House.

“Am I really supposed to do a Judicial Review every time I write a letter?” 

Mr Witney-Price repeatedly claimed he rarely receives replies to his correspondence from Chief Pleas, Government House, the States of Guernsey, the MoJ, and the Crown.

READ MORE...

Sark could 'nationalise' electricity

Sark Electricity: “Chief Pleas are simply not operating in the real world"

Sark may ask Guernsey to help fund plan to 'nationalise' electricity

No cap on electricity prices for Sark residents this winter

Sark's power struggle rears its head once again

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