My favourite television advertisement at the moment is for EDF energy, which promises us that it can make our bills lower. All we have to do is use less gas and electricity. Please, do not snort. I snorted initially. Then a few days later I received my gas bill from EDF. It was the largest household bill I have ever received. It was the size of a mortgage. It was eye-watering. It was heartstopping. It made me gasp for breath and clutch at the kitchen table until my knuckles turned white. The panic only subsided partially once I had investigated my savings portfolio and ascertained that if I moved large sums of money around and sold a few shares I could probably just about pay it. But before I did any of that I let go of the kitchen table, staggered over to the thermostat, slammed my hand against the controls with great ceremony and shut off the heating with every intention of keeping if off forever.
I made my excuses to the various pets arraigned in front of me who are the real beneficiaries of Electricité de France’s services as they are the ones who sit at home all day absorbing the premium-rated heat. ‘I’m sorry,’ I told BB, the giant rabbit, and my tabby cat, Louis. ‘But things have got to change.’ They looked back at me most pathetically, but I have stuck to my guns through fair weather and foul ever since. The heating is not coming back on. And I’m not using the cooker either (actually, I have to be honest, I turned that particular appliance off at the mains ages ago when I realised I hadn’t used it for about five years).
Anyway, the point is this: EDF was right. It delivered on its promise. It made me curb, no, drastically reduce, no, end my energy use. I am hugely grateful to the company. And I am very much looking forward to my next bill being zero. If only, I can hear you say, the same incentives could be offered in other key areas of our lives we would be saving money all over the place. Well, with a little switch in perception it is possible to see that many other corporations and authorities do indeed have the same compassionate ideas to save us money as EDF.
The way I now like to look at it, Ken Livingstone will shortly be saving me thousands of pounds a year in petrol and car-parking charges with his £25-a-day congestion charge. Like EDF’s approach to energy conservation, he will not be curbing my motoring; he will be cutting it off at the knees. It’s been a delicate business finding the right formula to achieve this but I think Mr Livingstone has finally arrived at the necessary charge level. Five pounds a day was irritating but payable. Eight pounds a day was painful but payable. Throw in the odd £60 fine for non-payment, which cannot be avoided because we all forget from time to time — shall we call it five fines a year? — and an average charge of £200 a month was agonising but, frankly, still payable. The magnificent new £25-a-day charge, or £6,500 a year, is, I am sure, destined to be a great success. It has the all-important stomach-turning factor. When I look at the savage combustion engine sitting outside my house, I get the same feelings of fear and revulsion that the sight of my evil combination boiler gives me. I also have irrational urges to take the beautiful blue convertible to an automobile trader and swap it for a small, ugly, slow lump of metal that pleases the priorities of Mr Livingstone, a man who enjoys insulting people and collecting newts, for goodness sake.
The only problems I envisage are small practical issues that can no doubt be ironed out. For example, I don’t ever seem to be able to get anywhere on time by using the train, which has a habit of stopping about a half a mile short of its intended destination when what I really need it to do is to go all the way there and deposit me where it promised it would when I got on to it. I’m sure Mr Livingstone intends to put this right before he makes me stop using my car. Also, the house is quite cold.
It all goes to show how far our priorities have evolved. A hundred years ago people probably dreamed that by now we’d be spending our hard-earned money on all sorts of weird and wonderful pleasures. When in fact we’re blowing our cash on keeping warm and moving ourselves about. It does feel like a bit of an anticlimax, to say the least.
Melissa Kite is deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph.