It is three years since the National Federation of Builders began highlighting the woeful service its members receive from utilities companies.

But as the trade body’s latest survey shows, the problem is actually getting worse. Nearly nine out of 10 sites are being delayed because of difficulties getting hooked up to gas, electricity or water. About a third of the firms say that is costing them money. Given the hardship many are facing – two years of intensifying misery (page 11) – paying connection fees in advance and liquidated damages in arrears is the stuff that stomach ulcers are made of.

What makes the situation so intolerable is the lack of competition in the sector – and the lack of effective regulation. If utilities had to fight like greengrocers for your custom, you bet they’d be setting up dedicated account teams to handle your case from start to finish. And if the regulator really did protect the consumer, there would be mandatory codes, enforceable service level agreements and fines. Early in 2007, Ofgem did seem to be making some of the right noises, and its strategy did include heavy fines to penalise poor performance. Clearly this is yet to have any effect. For construction, utilities seem to be a law unto themselves. As Julia Evans, the NFB’s chief executive, comments – the arrogance of the utilities firms is matched only by their profits.

How much longer will this go on? Much of the blame for the economic trouble we’re all in has been attributed to the Financial Services Authority’s failure to prevent banks from sleepwalking over a cliff. Now there is a positive clamour for regulation, oversight and state intervention. The taxpayer’s bail out of banks comes with more strings than the London Symphony Orchestra, including unprecedented curbs on bonuses and executive pay. So why stop at the financial sector? Perhaps the government should use its muscle and its mandate to get tougher with the utilities. That’s a sure-fire vote winner for consumers and as the industry enters its toughest period in more than a decade it would make a lot of people feel a lot better.

Paying connection fees in advance and liquidated damages in arrears is the stuff that stomach ulcers are made of

Stock response

The UK Green Building Council’s latest report into ways of cutting energy use in Britain’s housing stock hasn’t been universally welcomed (page 24). The aim was to pitch ideas to the government’s energy-efficiency consultation later this year, with the hope of having them enshrined in its low-carbon-homes strategy next spring. The suggestions that have raised hackles include using energy performance certificates to force people to improve homes, which won’t be welcomed by cash-strapped householders. But we should stop and think about this. Building’s 99% campaign has been calling for action on existing homes for two years and at last something is happening. The ideas are only ideas at the moment, and they could be sweetened by loans to help pay for improvements, the costs of which would be met by energy savings. The report also says the industry needs training in refurbishment skills, a market potentially worth £5bn a year. Given the state of the economy, surely it’s better to get people improving our housing stock rather than doing nothing on the dole?

Denise Chevin, editor