Brown: Scant regard for Top Energy owners

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The ITM site in Kaitaia - a long wait for electricity.
The ITM site in Kaitaia - a long wait for electricity.

Far North developer Wayne Brown has never been a fan of how Top Energy is managed and governed, and is even less enamoured after a three-week wait to have electricity connected to a business under construction in Kaitaia.

"Readers will have received a self-serving pamphlet from the trustees of Top Energy, purporting to be a discussion paper on who should own the Far North's lines company," he said.

"The pamphlet mentions that we, the consumers, theoretically own Top Energy, but other than an annual bribe of $200 for the privilege of paying around $600 more than similar consumers elsewhere in New Zealand, scant regard is paid to us as owners.

"We have no say in who represents us on the trust, who in theory are chosen by the local MP, the Northern Maori MP and the chairman of the Northland Regional Council, who typically doesn't live in our area and is therefore not even a consumer.

Not surprisingly the trustees avoid involving these three, who often are not even aware that they have that role.

"The trustees in turn appoint the directors, and they make absolutely sure there are no experienced business-like engineers with enough experience from within the district on the board to question the company, preferring directors who will in turn recommend no changes to the comfy relationship they have with the trustees.

"The pamphlet reflects this, with a recommendation that Top Energy shares remain with the trust that appointed them. No surprises there."

Lines companies' only real objective was to deliver cheap, reliable power, neither of which the Far North was receiving. Meanwhile Top Energy was "playing at being property developers," taking on the attendant risks without informing its consumers.

"They are reportedly looking into a big property play around Ngawha, the objective of which is to use our electricity payments to subsidise foreign-owned timber mills on to free land to compete with locally-owned timber companies like Mount Pokaka and Waipapa Pine, which have paid for their own land and whose high electricity bills over the years provide the income to subsidise these foreign competitors. Madness!" Mr Brown said.

Meanwhile consumers wanting to connect to Top Energy would know just how slow, bureaucratic and expensive the process was, the company exhibiting all the behaviours of a monopoly.

"Yet in theory we own it, and in a normal commercial world we as customers would enjoy prompt, helpful, cheap service. Recent experience on a local commercial subdivision where Top Energy had already been paid many thousands of dollars to reticulate power to the sites, shows no sense of urgency to provide connections and no sense of the commercial impact of its behaviour."

In spite of the subdivision being very close to Top Energy's own offices, days passed before any response was received, and then a payment of $173.91 plus GST was demanded for inspections, mainly of work that Top Energy had already carried out itself. (The connection was made on Monday, after a three-week wait).

Connection charges bore no relation to costs incurred, he said. It was a case of "pay up or else".

Given New Zealanders' "well-justified" fears of privatisation, Mr Brown said he had no doubt that the trustees would round up sufficient support for no change in ownership, but if consumers were to own the company they needed more input into who ran it, how they were chosen, what their aims were, why costs were so high and reliability so low, why the company directors were not local people, and what they thought they were doing becoming property developers.

"We need to receive cost comparisons with other lines companies, particularly the much more commercially-operated North Power, and the trustees need to own up to who appoints them and get them involved.

"Our MPs and the NRC chairman need to front this debate, not a hidden group of fee collectors as we have now," he said.

"Incidentally, the pamphlet you will receive suggests you read the directors' report on ownership on the company website, but of course it is not there. Nor is there any information on the skills and backgrounds of the trustees or the directors." he said.

"It probably needs Winston, Kelvin Davis and whoever is the NRC chairman to get involved."

- Northland Age

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