Many staff and members of Energy UK will remember Lord Spicer as the man who chaired the new organisation from its formation in 2012 to the time when he handed over to Sir David Arculus in 2016. But far fewer will know how deeply Michael Spicer features in Energy UK’s genealogy.
His involvement began with the Association of Independent Electricity Producers (AIEP), which had been founded in 1987 to fight for better terms for small electricity producers at a time when the electricity supply industry was state-owned and dominated by the CEGB, regional electricity boards and a powerful representative body known as the ‘Electricity Council’. The AIEP’s early members - pioneers of renewable energy, CHP schemes and some who hoped to compete on a bigger scale –were the ‘disruptors’ of their day. The Energy Act 1983 permitted them to make and sell electricity and to use the system, although the terms were dictated by their competitor, the state industry which, of course, was not inclined to be helpful to interlopers. But the privateers were about to catch a wave, in the form of a radical White Paper ‘Privatising Electricity’ (February 1988). The bill which followed was taken through the House of Commons by the Energy Minister responsible for coal and electricity, Michael Spicer MP. With the Conservative government holding a majority in the House of Commons of over 100 seats, the legislation was not likely to fail. It was opposed, of course, and the Opposition put up a rising star to do that job – energy spokesman, Tony Blair. Tony Blair knew that he could not stop the bill, but Michael understood that his opponent also had a job to do. They did a deal which allowed the bill to proceed on time, but also gave Tony Blair the chance to make newsworthy points of his choosing. In ‘The Spicer Diaries’ (published by Biteback Publishing in 2012) Michael wrote ‘The future Prime Minister and I hit it off.’ Not surprisingly, when I first met Tony Blair, he spoke warmly of Michael.
Two years after the privatisation became law, the AIEP was growing and its then Chairman, Dr David ‘Spike’ Pike, from a landfill gas company, was about to stand down. I had to find a successor from the membership, but Spike wanted me to do that and more. ‘The AIEP is getting serious you cannot have it led by someone like me with one megawatt of electricity production on a rubbish tip’ he said. With a recommendation from the former Secretary of State for Energy, Cecil Parkinson, I went to see Michael Spicer, who had recently returned to the back benches.
I had met Michael before, when he was a Minister. We got on well, but initially he was cautious. The former Minister was being asked to lend his support to an organisation which operated on a tiny budget from a mid-terrace cottage on a hillside in Cornwall. Apart from that, he wanted to make one thing clear. He would not get to his feet to speak for the Association in the House of Commons, which he considered a ‘waste of time’. He argued that MPs simply switched off when one of their colleagues spoke on behalf of a lobbying interest. He was probably right about that and what we really wanted was his experience of politics and government. That is what we got and the Association never looked back.
Having Michael’s name on the notepaper was helpful, but, his presence at board meetings and the AGM was much more important. AIEP was growing, but it was not plain sailing. The post-privatisation world was changing rapidly. There was a never-ending torrent of issues to deal with and they were often newsworthy. We were able to handle the news media, but, when we did, it came to the notice of the big, ex-state generating companies who were members of the Electricity Association (EA) – the big trade body created at privatisation from the former Electricity Council. It got under the skin of the EA not least because PowerGen and National Power asked to join the AIEP. That was a non-trivial matter for the band of privateers and Michael demanded discussion with the companies at the highest level. In 1992, we met their Chief Executives in a suite at the Park Lane Hotel, Piccadilly (used regularly by the AIEP because it gave the tiny association ‘presence’ and we got a very good deal!) and Michael led the discussion. His role in electricity privatisation meant that he was known to and respected by the big bosses across the table. They accepted that they would have to pay subscriptions far in excess of the other members of the AIEP and most importantly that, irrespective of the size of the company, ‘one member, one vote’ would continue to apply to decision-making.
The outcome was that the Association was able to move to an office in London SW1 and it now had the resources to do much more than before. In due course, it also changed its name to Association of Electricity Producers (AEP) – there was no longer a state industry from which to be ‘independent’.
But, the growing influence of AIEP, then AEP, did not please the EA, where the two big companies remained members, despite signalling that generators’ interests were better served through AIEP. The EA proposed a merger of the two associations. It would have been a rather unequal merger, of course. More like a take-over – the EA had well over 200 staff and a budget to match, which threatened to stifle us. The matter had to be discussed with the EA and Michael led the negotiating team. That gave us almost an unfair advantage and it may have exposed divisions in the team on the other side of the table. When we were in our break-out room, debating how we would decline courteously the invitation, the CEO of one of the major generating companies (also in AEP membership) put his head in the door to say ‘I wouldn’t agree to it, if I were you’. ‘We had just decided not to, but, thank you anyway’ said Michael.
The two organisations then co-existed reasonably peacefully until, at a dinner between the CEOs and Chairmen of the two bodies, the EA team announced that with the retirement of their CEO imminent, they would like me to take over the role. That had not been on the agenda for the evening and my position was compromised. Michael and the AEP board chairman of the time, Keith Miller, proposed a comfort break and returned to say that, the decision would be up to me, but that they would be talking to me the next day. Within a few days, I was happily signing a new and better contract with AEP.
In 2002, the EA recruited a new CEO. She soon became aware of the tension between the two organisations and she commissioned a consultancy to review the trade association landscape. To our astonishment, the report (we had a leaked copy) recommended the break-up of the Electricity Association and the forming of separate sectoral associations – for generation, retail and networks. It was implemented, giving birth to the Energy Networks Association and the Energy Retail Association. The association for the generating sector, of course, was already well established. An astonished Michael Spicer, whose father had been a Brigadier, responded in military terms ‘We struggle with them for all that time, then the enemy simply falls down in front of us.’
In 2012, the merger took place between the AEP, the Energy Retail Association and the UK Business Council for Sustainable Energy to form Energy UK (the Energy Networks Association wanted to remain independent). This merger was different. The post-privatisation industry had matured and the members of the three associations entered the process constructively. At the AEP AGM, chaired by Michael, the vote was 44-4 in favour.
Michael often reflected that he thought he had been most useful to AEP when its survival was at stake. He was right, but he was important for other reasons. He was liked and respected as President of the association and chaired with distinction the AGM where members, regardless of their political inclination, admired the style with which he conducted the lengthy proceedings. Year after year, they re-elected him. At the more regular meetings of the AEP board, where a member took the chair, he played the role of a Non-Executive Director. That meant asking questions relating to the strategy of the association, the PR and very often about its finances. He knew how to be discreet, but, was not afraid to be critical of his own party when required. I am sure that he continued with that style after I left Energy UK in 2012. But he was suffering increasingly from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease which prompted him to stand down in 2016.
Some 25 years had passed since he had taken office at AIEP. Those in the industry today will be concerned, quite properly, with the problems and opportunities of 2019 and beyond. I am in the fortunate position of being able to look back and to reflect on the huge part that Lord Spicer played in helping to make the industry as open as it is today. Access is now taken for granted, but it was not always that way.
Michael was a good friend, of course and we remained in touch. I shall miss him very much.
David Porter, former Chief Executive of AIEP, AEP and Energy UK