An extraordinary meeting of Bristol City Council’s full council is taking place on Tuesday to discuss the latest situation with Bristol Energy.
Set up in 2015, Bristol Energy has so far received £37.7m of public funding and is not expected to break even until 2023/24, with accountants now appointed to look into selling the business.
A motion for Tuesday’s meeting by opposition councillors says that under a “legal cloak of commercial confidentiality”, members are being “unreasonably constrained from expressing concerns about the municipally-owned company”.
So how did we get here? This is a timeline of Bristol Energy since it was founded:
January 27 2015
Bristol is one of the first local authorities in the UK to look into municipal energy supply. The company would be wholly owned by the council and offer people a “viable, trusted and accountable local energy company”, according to Bill Edrich, director of the council’s energy service
February 3 2015
The plan to establish a municipal energy company is given the go-ahead by Bristol City Council. Mayor George Ferguson said the company will focus on “locally sourced, low carbon energy and the mission is to provide an environmentally conscious energy supply”.
February 16 2016
Bristol Energy officially opens for business. “By switching, people become part of this very special initiative that could really make a difference to the lives of Bristol’s citizens,” said Ferguson.
July 15 2016
Appointment of Nicholas Jordan as a company director and Merlin Hyman as non-executive director.
September 28 2016
Glowing orbs across the city mark the launch of Bristol Energy’s My Bristol Tariff, “a highly competitive energy tariff exclusively for Bristol residents”.
Recently elected mayor Marvin Rees said that Bristol Energy is “here to help Bristol residents to support their city”. He said: “We all pay our energy bills, but if that money can be reinvested back into local communities to help pay for essential services and support, then the whole of Bristol can benefit.”
“Being open and transparent is hugely important to me,” writes Bristol Energy managing director, Peter Haigh, in the company’s 2016/2017 annual review.
“There is increased scrutiny across the energy market and rightly so – we provide an essential commodity. For us, there is an even greater need to make sure the people of Bristol know and understand their city’s energy company.”
May 10 2017
At the inaugural Bristol Life Awards, Bristol Energy is crowned both Best New Business and Overall Winner, with the judging panel saying: “Such a great project that Bristol is massively benefiting from. A success story in the city.”
September 28 2017
Bristol Energy wins Start-Up Business of the Year Award at the 2017 Business Leader Awards.
April 25 2018
Bristol Energy lose their contract to supply Bristol City Council after they were marginally undercut by British Gas. A statement from Haigh following the news says that “we have the Council’s full support, and we’ll do everything we can to support our great city”.
August 8 2018
Appointment of Marek Majewicz as finance director.
September 25 2018
Resignation of Nicholas Jordan as a director.
October 25 2018
Bristol City Council’s overview & scrutiny committee were not able to scrutinise a Bristol Energy item before a council meeting, with councillors saying that they did “not believe there is sufficient information for the Mayor to determine whether it is financially prudent to continue with this level of financial support”.
Councillors expressed “a high level of disappointment that the Council had not been able to award contracts to Bristol Energy” but welcomed the officer proposal for six-monthly updates to scrutiny and for party group leaders to be briefed regularly.
December 20 2018
Bristol Energy announce the departure of managing director Peter Haigh, with finance director Marek Majewicz stepping into the role of interim managing director.
Bristol deputy mayor Craig Cheney said: “I would like to thank Peter for all he has done in establishing Bristol Energy and getting the business to where it is today. The performance of the business reflects the hard work and dedication of Peter and his team, the company having hit key milestones in a particularly difficult energy market.”
January 4 2019
Bristol Energy reveals it posted a loss of £11.2m for the 2017/18 financial year, with the firm quadrupling its turnover for the same period, from £13.6m to £52.4m.
The company insists that it continues to deliver social value in the city, but within the report it states that “the Directors do not believe that there is sufficient certainty that the Company will make taxable profits in the foreseeable future”.
Cheney publicly backs Bristol Energy, arguing it has the potential to deliver “significant positive social and environmental impacts”.
He says: “The support we have provided to date reflects the commitment we have to the company’s founding principles and the belief we have that the company has the potential to deliver significant positive social and environmental impacts.”
January 10 2019
Green mayoral candidate Sandy Hore Ruthven writes in Bristol24/7 that he believes Bristol City Council “should hold its nerve and continue to invest” in Bristol Energy.
He adds: “Calls for the council to pull out are premature. It is exactly this kind of investment that councils across the country are making in order to shore up their finances in the long term and make sure essential front line services have the money they need in the future.”
February 11 2019
Bristol City Council awards Bristol Energy a one-year electricity supply contract.
Deputy mayor Craig Cheney says: “We’ve undertaken a rigorous procurement process to ensure both value for money when spending the public purse and maximum social value. Bristol Energy was able to offer both of these things.”
April 6 2019
Jerome Thomas, Green councillor for Clifton, called the council’s investment in Bristol Energy “a staggering waste of public money”.
Speaking at the same council meeting, Rees’ former cabinet member Claire Hiscott, a Conservative councillor for Horfield, asked: “At which point do you think the investment will change from being brave to being reckless?”
May 21 2019
Bristol Energy announces four new board members including a new chair, Stephen Robertson. The other new appointees are Bethan Evans, Peter Madden and Alan Mather.
July 30 2019
Bristol City Council made its first payment of £2.5m to the firm as part of a long-term plan to boost its investment to a total of £37.7m. The long-term plan from 2019 to 2024 was signed off by the cabinet in April 2019.
Cheney says: “We’ve been consistent and clear in our commitment to Bristol Energy and the company’s values of delivering positive social impact and tackling fuel poverty.
“This latest investment represents the first set of agreed funding for the current financial year in line with our previously approved investment plan.”
August 8 2019
In their annual results for 2018/19, Bristol Energy says that “strong growth has enabled us to stabilise losses, putting us slightly ahead of plan by reporting a decreased loss of £10.1m in 2018/19 compared to £10.3m in 2017/18”.
August 9 2019
Bristol Energy discloses it might not make a profit for another five years.
Tim Kent, Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, said the company was “now the largest threat [along with Brexit] to Bristol City Council”.
Rees said: “To jump off this just as we’ve turned it around, with a new board, new challenges, a new business plan, a new chair and new staff would be quite unwise.”August 19 2019
Scrutiny committee chair and Conservative councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, Geoff Gollop, said: “I struggle with the concept that the council has paid £12m out and it’s got £7m of social value back.
“To me, the social value is a really positive story but if we play it too much, in that context, it raises so many questions that it undervalues the benefits.”
Dan Millard, head of finance at Bristol Energy, told the scrutiny committee: “The losses will reduce next year, I can guarantee that.”
Anthony Negus, a previous member of the Lib Dem administration that originally conceived the idea of Bristol Energy, said: “I would guess that many councillors would really want this to work. We want this to do good things, we want it to be profitable, we want it to deliver.
“But we’re very, very worried that we’re holding onto a bag here which is getting heavier and heavier and heavier with money that we’re owing other people.”
September 9 2019
The highest paid director of Bristol Energy received £250,000 in a year when the company posted £10m in losses.
January 25 2020
Which? puts Bristol Energy above the big six energy companies in their annual customer satisfaction survey.
January 30 2020
Conservative group leader Mark Weston criticised the proposed council tax rise and criticised the millions of pounds the local authority had invested in its loss-making “zombie” company Bristol Energy.
Councillor Weston said: “There must come a point where loading such increases onto the local tax base becomes politically and economically untenable.
“In the mayor’s capital programme, the continued expensive obsession with sustaining a zombie energy company remains highly questionable and lacks genuine public support.”
February 25 2020
Craig Cheney remembers a meeting with Marvin Rees and the council’s finance director in 2016.
“I had been a councillor the year before, so I understood there were issues. I knew we were living in an age of austerity and knew that many councils including Bristol were having problems,” said the deputy mayor.
“I knew from the budget we had passed the year before that there was a large chunk of savings – £29m – that needed to be found.
“I had presumed as did everyone else that there was a plan for that, but there wasn’t.”
March 10 2020
A report about Bristol Energy was only made available to opposition councillors minutes before full council discussing the budget began.
Gollop said: “I understand the sudden urgency of this cabinet item but to not refer to it in the (full council) papers is appalling, and for the mayor and deputy mayor to have not alluded to it in their presentations is unacceptable.
“It is inappropriate that the only time members can read something of such significance is actually during the debate when they are setting the budget.”
Cheney insisted the mystery papers, whose details were not revealed, “did not materially affect the budget”.
March 13 2020
Opposition councillors forced an emergency meeting over the future of loss-making Bristol Energy.
Cheney said: “I’m not convinced that not providing more money would mean the end of the company. Whatever future there is for Bristol Energy, there is a future.”
March 13 2020
Announcement that local elections would be postponed for 12 months. Bristol Energy managing director Marek Majewicz leaves the business.
March 16 2020
Appointment of Allan Booth as new managing director of Bristol Energy. On the same day, a verbal update is provided to Bristol City Council’s audit committee on the Bristol Energy accounts, but councillors are not told about Booth’s appointment.
April 7 2020
During an interview on BBC Radio Bristol, Rees said that he would invest in Bristol Energy himself with his own money if given the advice to do so: “Well I might if I received advice, we’re going to get some advice in the coming months, that this was a good opportunity, then I would.”
April 20 2020
John Goulandris, Conservative councillor for Stoke Bishop, asked about Bristol Energy at a full council meeting: “Does the mayor still believe – on balance – that this commercial enterprise represents a suitable or sensible use of taxpayers money?”
Rees said: “This company was initiated in 2011 by the Lib Dem administration and set up in 2015 under the previous mayor, with the Conservatives holding the finance portfolio.
“I do not think the energy market was a sensible one to get into, but we have to be responsible with where we are and what we inherited.”
May 4 2020
Ernst & Young is appointed to carry out a “full assessment of the company’s structure and future business viability”.
May 6 2020
Gary Hopkins, Lib Dem group leader and councillor for Knowle, said: “The mayor has broken his word on this, and we need a full inquiry into what happened, including the decision-making and the information that was given out.
“There has been a misdescription of the money, which has been put down as an ‘investment’, which it clearly isn’t.
“We knew this was inevitable. They were pumping money in so they didn’t have to face up to the crystallisation of the debt. They were coming up with comments like: ‘It will turn around’, but frankly they had given up on that some while ago.”
Main photo: Bristol Energy