Our annual pre-Christmas family reunion in Leicester

December 10th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

For as long as I can remember, my wonderful sister Silvia has convened a gathering of the extended family at her home in Leicester a couple of weeks before Christmas. Today is the date of the 2016 event so I’ll be travelling up from London to see everyone.

There should be about two dozen there and the age range will be almost eight decades. I’m taking lots of presents and might come back with a few for myself.

Currently I am reading a book called “Happiness By Design, written by Paul Dolan who is Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. He writes: “There is one almost surefire way to be happier: spend more time with people you like.” I’m on my way …

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What should baby boomers do to stay healthy?

December 9th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

I am officially a ‘baby boomer’ because I was born between 1946 and 1964 (actually in 1948).

According to a BBC news item, England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has called on people aged between 50 and 70 to keep working to stay healthy. In a report on the health of the so-called baby boomers, it is claimed that the physical and mental health benefits of being employed or volunteering “should not be underestimated”. Davies said working helps people feel fulfilled and less isolated.

I an 68 and still working – not full-time, but around two-thirds, I reckon. As you can see from my short biography, I continue to hold six appointments in the field of consumer advocacy in regulated sectors of the economy. I enjoy the mental stimulus of working on complex issues with clever, younger people – and, according to the new report, this will help me to stay healthy and live longer. That’s the plan anyway …

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A review of “Sully: Miracle On The Hudson”

December 8th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

Everyone knows what happened when an Airbus was landed on the Hudson River in 2009 and all 155 passengers and crew survived. So how can the story be turned into a successful film?

A director of the calibre of Clint Eastwood and an actor as fine as Tom Hanks make this an eminently watchable movie – although you might not want to watch it in flight.

You can read my review of the film here. If, like me, you enjoy aviation-themed films, you find details of lots more of them here.

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How should the consumer voice be heard in company policymaking?

December 7th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

In her campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party and in her time as Prime Minister, Theresa May has talked of consumers and workers being on company boards and there is currently a Government consultation on corporate governance that looks tentatively at this subject.

The consumer organisation Citizens Advice invited me to do a guest blog posting explaining why consumers on boards might be a difficult proposition and exploring another possible option for embedding the consumer voice in company thinking.

You can read my piece here.

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Nine days in Washington DC and area

December 6th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

If you’re a regular visitor to NightHawk, you may have read recently a series of 10 blog postings on my trip to the USA to celebrate Thanksgiving and to see friends and tourist attractions.

I have now knitted these postings into a single narrative and added various hyperlinks. Of course, you might not have read the original postings.

Either way, I hope that you’ll find my account of the trip of interest. You can access it here.

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Delighted to hand over my role at South East Water to Zoe McLeod

December 5th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

For the past five years, I’ve had a consumer champion role at South East Water. For three years, I chaired the Customer Challenge Group which worked with the company on its business plan for the Price Review period 2015-2020. For the next two years, I chaired the Customer Panel which monitored how the company performed against the commitments in its business plan. South East Water has made real improvements in its customer service over this time and it has been very encouraging to see it raise its game.

The water sector is now engaging with the regulator Ofwat on the next Price Review for the period 2020-2025 and it is time for me to leave my role with South East Water and pass on the work to a successor. I’m delighted that the company has chosen Zoe McLeod who is a very knowledgeable and able advocate for consumers in a range of regulated sectors involuting water. You can read more here.

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Should we hold Donald Trump to his promises? All 282 of them!

December 1st, 2016 by Roger Darlington

In the course of the long campaign, President-elect Donald Trump made an astonishing number of promises – some very specific, other terrible vague; some quite positive, but many utterly fanciful.

Writing for the “Washington Post”, Jenna Johnson has compiled a list of 282 Trump promises. In the interests of political accountability, the Democratic Party, the media and electors should be watching over the next four years to see how many of these promises are kept.

Of course, many of them are so indeterminate that Trump will have no difficulty pretending that he has met his objectives. In other cases, Trump will use his longstanding ability to flip-flop and either deny that he made the promise or simply change his mind.

You can have real fun – sometimes a loud laugh – working through the list but, like me, you are likely to have mixed wishes on implementation. As an example, I would love to see 1 and 2 but do not want to see 65 and 66. What about you?

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Against the clock: why more time is not the answer for consumers

November 30th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

Citizens Advice has just published a report exploring how long it takes to follow a ‘good’ consumer decision-making process compared to what comes more naturally, and what impact this has on consumers.

In “Against the clock: why more time is not the answer for consumers”, it is explained that:

  • Following a ‘good’ decision-making process takes longer than following a natural process (an average of 107 vs 76 minutes per week). This difference is particularly stark in regulated markets, like energy and financial services
  • Following a ‘good’ decision-making process leaves consumers feeling less satisfied with their decision than if they simply decide naturally. Again, this is worse in regulated markets
  • In regulated markets, consumers are even less satisfied when they take the time to read terms and conditions, than if they don’t bother to do so.

This research adds to the growing body of evidence showing that certain features of regulated markets in particular (e.g. complexity, level of enjoyment people derive from engaging) make them very difficult for consumers to engage with. The clear implication of the findings is that spending more time will not necessarily increase consumer satisfaction. Markets need to be made easier for consumers to navigate, and behavioural insights need to be taken seriously in order to improve them.

You can read a blog posting on the report here and you can access the full report here.

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Four disruptions that will shake things up for energy consumers

November 29th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

Citizens Advice has just published an interesting new report on the future of energy markets and how these changes might impact on consumers. You can access the full report, “The Disrupted Decade”, here. Meanwhile this is a summary:

It has been said that people often overestimate what can happen in 2 years and underestimate the change that will take place in 10. This is true of the UK energy market today.

Most debate focuses on rising or falling prices, incremental policies and worries about looming supply shortages. However, new technology such as cheap solar power, advanced batteries and big data analytics could mean more dramatic change.

This report looks at potential changes to the energy market over the next 10 years and how we can make sure what happens is in the interest of consumers.

We looked at disruptions that could affect the energy industry and identified four that could have the most impact on consumers. These are:

1. New pricing models

How energy is priced hasn’t changed a lot for decades. Most consumers are billed (usually on estimated use) a fixed standing charge and flat per unit charge.

In the next 10 years, new technology and better understanding of consumer behaviour could lead to the creation of pricing models that are far more tailored to consumers’ lifestyles. The biggest change is ‘time of use’ (ToU) tariffs, that vary energy costs by time of day. Another is energy bills indexed to wholesale costs. Regulators need to understand these developments, because the impact of the changes will vary for different groups of consumers.

2. Energy retail intermediaries

Most consumers buy household energy directly from a retail energy company. However, in the next decade, we see the rise of intermediaries who could allow consumers to reduce their energy bills, making it easier to find and switch tariffs by handling part or all of the switching process for them.

More sophisticated intermediaries will use smart meter data to advise consumers on how to cut their consumption. We need to know how barriers to entry can be lowered (to allow these innovations) and how these intermediaries would be regulated.

3. Widespread adoption of storage

Storage could dramatically reduce demands on the electricity network at peak times by matching demand to supply from a different time of day. This becomes more important if rising demand for electricity continues, and if the grid uses more intermittent renewables like solar. These changes could make electricity cheaper for consumers, and make it far easier and more efficient to use renewable energy.

4. Distributed generation and costs

The rise of distributed generation, like rooftop solar panels, may result in a re-allocation of network costs.

If we keep the tariff structure we have now costs will be spread out unfairly. People using solar generation or storage will increasingly escape paying for networks, while those who don’t will pay over the odds. The longer we delay changing this system, the gap will get larger, and change will be harder

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Thanksgiving in the USA (10)

November 28th, 2016 by Roger Darlington

The last day of my trip was a Sunday and Mike treated me to a cooked breakfast before he drove me to Glenmont metro station for my journey to downtown Washington to spend another day on my own before catching my flight home. First, I made my way to the Capital Hilton Hotel where I left my luggage for the day. I was then free to embark on a self-organised walking tour of the major monuments in the centre of the city. The weather was chilly but bright and, in three and a half hours, I covered all the 10 monuments on my list.

1) The White House – OK, I know this is not a monument as such but it is certainly an iconic building. The north side was closed off as workers constructed stands for the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. On the south side, there was the traditional view of the ‘back’ of the building. A long time ago, I went on an official tour of the White House.
2) The Washington Monument – This imposing structure rises 555 feet (165 metres) and can be seen from many parts of downtown. Completed in 1884, it is now opened again after repairs necessitated by the earthquake of 2011. On two previous visits to DC, I have ridden to the top of the monument.
3) The World War II Memorial – This is located at the east end of the Reflecting Pool and it is a huge structure commemorating the service of some 16M members of the armed forces. It was inaugurated in 2004 and it was the first time that I have seen it.
4) The Vietnam Memorials -There is the black tapered wall with the names of 58,267 dead (1982), the Three Servicemen Statue (1984), and the Women’s Memorial (1993) and this was very much a repeat viewing for me.
5) The Lincoln Memorial – This is located at the west end of the Reflecting Pool and, as well as the huge seated statute of Lincoln, there are side walls with the full text of the Gettysburg Address and an extract from his Second Inaugural Address. Completed in 1922, I have made several visits here.
6) The Korean War Veterans Memorial – This commemorates the 54,246 Americans who were killed in this conflict and consists mainly of a series of white figures with capes. It was opened in 1995 and I have seen it a couple of times before.
7) The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial – At the centre of this structure is a huge statue of Dr King with folded arms and then, to either side, there are stone walls with quotes from his speeches and writings. This is the first time that I have seen this memorial which only opened in 2011.
8) The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial – This is the most spacious of all the memorials I viewed with an area for each of FDR’s four terms as president plus lots of quotes. It opened in 1997 and I visited it on my last visit to Washington in 2014.
9) The George Mason Memorial – Mason is sometimes called “the forgotten Founding Father”. He was instrumental in framing the Constitution and creating the Bill of Rights. The memorial is the most intimate of those I viewed, being a slightly larger-than-life seated and smiling bronze figure. Although it was erected in 2002, I had not seen it before.
10) The Thomas Jefferson Memorial – Located on the Tidal Basin, the bronze statue of the Founding Father is accompanied with a couple of quotes and set inside a large cupola. This is one of my favourite DC monuments: grand without being grandiose.

One daytime observation was around the White House armed men in black uniforms (and sometimes masks) with prominent Secret Service labels. One nighttime observation was ventilation grills emitting warm air with homeless individuals sitting or lying on them.

My flight home was on a British Airways Boeing 777-300. I had an interesting experience before boarding. At check in, I asked for an aisle seat but the woman member of staff could only give me a middle seat in a row of three. Then, as I was actually about to board the aircraft, my name was announced on the loudspeaker system and, when I came forward, the same member of staff appeared and gave me an aisle seat by the exit! This might have had something to do with the fact that, when we talked earlier, I learned that she was from Lebanon and I spoke a bit of Arabic to her.

I’m home now …

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