Meet our members – Peter Vicary-Smith, Core Group member, South Eastern Group Lead, Customer Working Group Lead

I was initially reluctant to join the Customer Engagement Group (CEG) for UK Power Networks. I have been sceptical about the impact of such groups for many years, as they often suffer from being under-resourced, without sufficient expertise to truly challenge the experts that sit within the companies, and receive information too late to make a meaningful contribution.

As Ann Bishop, our CEG Chair and Basil Scarsella, the CEO of UK Power Networks, laid out how they wanted this CEG to work it was clear they had in mind something different, a body that would have the skills, experience, resources and access to people and material to really hold a mirror up to UK Power Networks’ plans and challenge its ideas on behalf of customers and other stakeholders. That’s not to say the CEG’s job will be an easy one – we are up against tight timescales and an uncertain context with the transition to net zero and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – but the expert and multi-skilled team that Ann has recruited and the constructive approach we have established with Basil and his team at UK Power Networks means that we are in a strong position to do our job well and deliver value to customers.

Prior to joining the CEG, I worked for the past 14 years as Chief Executive of Which?, Europe’s largest consumer organisation, and was President of BEUC, the European federation of consumer organisations. I’m passionate about putting the interests of consumers front and centre in decision-making, ensuring their views are heard in the boardrooms of companies and regulators across the United Kingdom. That’s why I founded a consultancy theconsumerfirst ltd. dedicated to doing just that, and have taken on various roles as a non-executive in public policy areas.

Energy is not just an expensive utility for many of us, a significant part of our monthly budgets, but it’s also one that is going to be vital in delivering the environmental changes we know we need to see. Electric vehicles, heat pumps, the end to gas boilers in new homes, giving us all control over the energy we use whilst ensuring we deliver on our environmental and other targets – these are all big issues that face consumers today, not just in 20 years’ time.

The CEG is looking at how the views of customers have informed UK Power Networks’ thinking on these and other issues as part of its business plan for the next five year price control period (RIIO-ED2) starting in 2023. The Customer Working Group (CWG), which I lead, is looking specifically at how UK Power Networks has approached its research into customers’ views to ensure that the voices of its broad and diverse range of customers and stakeholders across its three regions have been understood and taken into account.

Some of the specific issues the CWG is now focusing on include how Covid-19 might impact customer and stakeholder sentiment and – importantly – customers’ willingness to pay, as well as the impact of the pandemic on the nature of research itself. This includes questions around how to reach those unable or lacking in confidence to engage virtually while social distancing measures are in place. The Group is also challenging UK Power Networks on how it is addressing the need to research the needs and preferences of future customers, the changing role of customers in the energy system – many of whom are playing an increasingly active role, for example by producing their own electricity or adapting their consumption to help balance demand on the grid – and the changing definition of customer service in ED2 due to the changing nature of the customer base and customers’ needs.

The CWG is also be working with our other CEG colleagues to challenge UK Power Networks on its approach to addressing tricky yet critical questions around net zero, including the issue of who pays and how to ensure that vulnerable customers don’t end up paying disproportionately, as well as questions on how to navigate national and local approaches to net zero, and the impact on regional customers.

Making sure that all views are heard in the big decisions being made is vital, and the CEG for UK Power Networks has an important role to play in this regard.