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Smallville: Power To The People

Shock, horror! High school maths is no preparation for an electricity bill announcing that your are £3390.38 in debt.

Peter B Farrell tells of his struggles to set the record straight.

When at school, I showed an aptitude for the abstract. Under the tutelage of the mathematics teacher, Mr Pemberton, logarithms, algebra and geometry held no fears for me. He had no difficulty in convincing me that two minuses make a plus, although the advantages of not having two apples, rather than having one apple, somehow evaded me in later life.

‘In later life’ duly turned up when I opened the quarterly statement from my electricity provider, expecting to be billed for about £150.

Total charges -£15,564.32
Total payments - £96.06
Previous balance -£18,898.64
You are in debit by £3390.38

This script from Fantasy Island posed questions. Should we book a round-the-world cruise or leave the country with one-way tickets to an undisclosed destination? Instead I contacted the company slave at the call centre. It appeared that the statements were computer generated. The obvious error would be investigated.

Shortly afterwards I was billed a relatively affordable amount.

The eventual outcome required the installation of a new digital meter. Every quarter a courteous employee of the meter reading company would then call, enter the details on his hand-held computer and pass them directly to the electricity company.

A year later - happy anniversary. I was stunned into near submission by a repeat performance, this time for a mere £2075, which was about £1900 more than I was expecting. Querying the readings on the statements with the call centre confirmed my worse fears. Somewhere between my meter and company HQ the readings were going haywire.

‘We can arrange to have your meter read,’ was the stock reply to my complaints. My point that ‘having my meter read’ seemed to be the very cause of the problem was ignored. Requests to speak to anyone of any authority or influence were refused point blank and my letters to the various managers and executives, right up to the managing director remained unanswered. However, a determined complaint to the customer relations department elicited a response and I was pointed in the direction of Energywatch, the consumer ‘watchdog'.

Call centres are de rigueur nowadays and Energywatch proved to be no exception, With perseverance I managed to get a reference number and assurances that my problem with the electricity company would be investigated in due course. Off the record I was advised to refuse to pay up until the matter was resolved.

This latter course prompted a rapid response from the customer relations team placed the blame on the meter readers. Conversely the meter reading people retaliated in kind. Realising that in the ensuing battle I was about to caught in the crossfire, I looked around for suitable allies. The local Citizens Advice bureau was eager to join in and I was given a number of leads including Age Concern and the local media.

I had heard of Age Concern, and their estimable spokesman, Mervyn Kohler, who monitors the social policy of the Government and is a staunch defender of the elderly. Eventually, with complete disregard for the escalating telephone bill, I finally got connected to the local office.

“No, I do not want a delivery of coal.“ My mention of Mr Kohler, the power company and a dispute had somehow became scrambled and I was soon fending off a delivery of coal. I was grateful just to register details of my complaint and get off the line.

It must have been ‘Jobs for the Unsuitable’ week at the BBC, when I made enquiries trying to pinpoint the relevant local TV station with a view to wider publicity. “Northumberland? Not sure where it is, I’ll check with my colleague.“

I heard muttering in the background and after a short delay “Is it near Leeds?”

Geography was obviously not Ms Try-this-job-for-a-day’s strong point but I thanked her for trying, hoping she would try something different without delay. (Is there a moratorium on maturity at the BBC?).

After considering having my own call centre with a permanent loop of ‘Blue Monday‘, a recording that once induced worldwide suicide, I decided instead to contact my member of Parliament.

Surprisingly, without any options, I was asked to leave a contact number and the very next day I was able to pass on the details of my problem to an eager member of his staff. I soon realised that I had entered a different world. After receiving a letter confirming that the Right Honourable Member had written to the managing director with details of my complaints.

“Sign here please.“ A few days later my wife was accepting a large bouquet of flowers accompanied by apologies from the public relations department.

Coincidently, a stream of letters soon arrived; grovelling apologies from company HQ, confirmation that an error had been found in their records and a new statement that indicated a balance in my favour of £4.62.

As soon as possible I switched providers. So what, if my new provider is a German company? The gloom suddenly lifted, the sun shone brightly and with the prevailing wind increasing it was time to start researching the possibilities of small wind turbines.

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