Bristol Energy Is Finally Put Up For Sale But City Won’t Recoup Financial Losses

Bristol Energy is being put up for sale, according to a report from Sky News this morning. The energy company has continued to rack up some £40m in losses and has come under fire for operating in a secretive manner without scrutiny.

Sky News reports that the council has appointed EY to handle the sale process. Their sources say that any sale would only recoup “a proportion” of the ‘estimated £35m that has been ploughed into the business by the council’ since Bristol Energy was originally launched.

In a statement issued to Sky News, a Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “Ernst and Young has been commissioned to provide professional advice to the council by undertaking a full and thorough assessment of Bristol Energy’s structure and future business viability.

“A key objective is to mitigate the extent of any additional funding requirement from the Council beyond the existing agreed funding envelope.”

An extraordinary Full Council meeting had been due to take place at City Hall on Friday 20 March, but was cancelled due to coronavirus. A motion challenging the secrecy surrounding Bristol Energy said:  ‘Council asserts that the public’s right or need to know overrides the judgement to withhold knowledge around an enterprise which has already required considerable public investment to underpin its business plan. The use of secrecy is also acting as an oppressive gag on Members from airing their views or knowledge in this matter.’

Information given to those who were to submit a statement, petition or question to Public Forum said: ‘Please note that the Lord Mayor in consultation with the Proper Officer may reject a question, statement or petition if it requires the disclosure of confidential or exempt information.’

Liberal Democrat Mayoral Candidate Mary Page, had submitted a statement for the meeting. She complained on Twitter that a chunk of it had been censored in this way, despite not having any access to Bristol Energy’s exempt papers.

Just last week, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees warned it would take Bristol years to recover from the effect coronavirus was having on the city’s economy. He said Bristol City Council was facing an £82m ‘blackhole’ that would affect frontline services.

Bristol City Council received £13.5m at the end of March in emergency funding from central government and will receive an additional £12.9m. But Rees says this will not cover the costs of covering emergency spending in areas such as adult social care.

Last week, Marvin Rees began to back away from Bristol Energy, criticising the decision to set it up as “not sensible”.

The continuing losses at the energy company have been slated by Bristol residents, especially when compared to the choices made to make illegal cuts to statutory services such as Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – a decision which resulted in the council facing a judicial review in July 2018 after making unlawful cuts to the city’s high needs budget.

At the time, Judge Barry Cotter QC ruled that Bristol City Council had acted unlawfully saying: “There is no evidence, from the extensive paperwork evidencing the defendant’s [council] decision-making process, that members of the council had any regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, still less ‘actively promote’ children’s welfare, when making the decision to proceed with the proposed savings.”

Deputy mayor Craig Cheney said at the time that the council was ‘disappointed at the decision’.

In November 2019, the losses Bristol energy was making was something I submitted a statement about for the Public Forum of Cabinet on Tuesday 05 November 2019

Agenda Item 10 Medium Term Financial Plan

Bristol City Council’s Medium Term Financial Plan for 20/21 – 24/25 (MTFP), quotes the council’s own ‘priorities’ published in the Corporate Strategy 18 – 23.

This strategy sets out the ‘vision for Bristol’ which states that ‘aspiration and equality lie at the heart of the Mayor’s vision for building a better Bristol’. This sets out seven key commitments to address over a five-year period.

Within the commitments are the aims that no-one is left behind and services and opportunities are accessible.

However, when the MTFP comes to talk about Send, the language used is grossly offensive and inappropriate. Statutory duties the council must undertake by law are reduced to ‘demand’ when in fact they are needs.

Included in the eight ‘demands’ are: statement to EHCP transfer, requests for health assessments, special school provision, inclusion service support, statutory and non-statutory EP services, SEMH support in school and home to school transport.

‘Non-statutory EP services’ is also a misnomer considering their intervention would be a standard part of the Send Code of Practice: 0-25 years.

‘Demand’ on High Needs Funding, according to the MTFP includes the number of EHCPs, growth in alternative learning providers and the need for post 19 provision.

The MTFP says that the growth in high needs is ‘not sufficiently funded’ with a deficit projection of £5m during 2019/20.

In October 2019, Bristol City Council had its joint Ofsted/Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection, the results of which are not currently publicly available.

The MTFP states that if Bristol fails to effectively implement recommendations identified during the inspection, it will ‘not be able to meet our statutory duties and vulnerable children will be at risk’.

Bristol City Council has already failed to meet statutory duties. It is already failing to respond effectively. Vulnerable children are already at risk and those who were at risk have now been abandoned.

To address Send failures, Bristol City Council says that ‘funding will need to be identified from a range of sources within the various budgets to enable the appropriate investment to be made in responding.’

During 2019, Bristol City Council increased funding and investment to loss-making Bristol Energy by more than £9 million. It’s yet more money – totalling nearly £38 million – being thrown at a failing project.

It’s time to say enough is enough. At a time when services are in crisis, vulnerable people are left by the wayside and budget setting is about robbing Peter to pay Paul, continuously wasting millions of pounds of Bristol residents money in a project that has clearly failed is not acceptable.

We do not need Bristol Energy. We do need Bristol City Council to fulfil its legal obligations to children with special educational needs and disabilities.

With so much hand-wringing about the future financing of Send, abhorrently lumping it in with the current Council Tax consultation, there are sources of funding available if so many millions can be given to Bristol Energy.

The question is not where is the money coming from? It’s there. Bristol can see it. The question is, why are essential services for all Bristol residents continuing to be culled when Bristol Energy is allowed to continue?

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