Thursday, 07 July 2022

Council slammed over gas supplier

Council slammed over gas supplier

HENLEY Town Council is continuing to buy gas from a Russian-affiliated energy company.

John Howell called this “disgusting” and said it was a “kick in the teeth” for local residents taking in Ukrainian refugees.

The Henley MP was speaking after it was revealed that the council paid £1,239 for gas to Gazprom Energy on March 4, more than a week after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The council says it wants to end the contract with the company “as soon as possible”, preferably without incurring a penalty.

Gazprom Energy is the UK arm of the Russian state-owned Gazprom. Although it does not sell gas from its Russian parent company, many businesses across the UK have chosen to exit their contracts with the supplier due to its close connection with the Russian state.

The council currently pays a fixed amount of about £6,000 per year to Gazprom Energy, which supplies council-owned buildings such as the town hall, King’s Arms Barn and the Old Fire Station Gallery. The contract with the company was entered into on January 1, 2021 and is scheduled to run until December 31, 2023.

The council’s other energy contractor is Total Gas, which supplies Jubilee Park.

The first call to end the contract with Gazprom Energy was made by opposition Conservative councillor Will Hamilton at a meeting of the council’s finance, strategy and management committee last month.

Town clerk Sheridan Jacklin-Edward warned of the risks of early termination. He told the meeting: “As soon as the crisis began, the question was asked and we have asked that question of our broker. The difficulty we have is we started a new contract with them last year for three years up until 2024.

“Were we to end the contract with them, we could end up paying them and another supplier unless we are careful.

“However, we are taking the lead from central government guidance and I believe it is being looked into at a central government level so we are waiting to hear back on that.

“We certainly share your concern, Councillor Hamilton, as if there is any way that we can potentially get out of the contract without incurring any penalties then possibly we will be able to do so.”

This week, Councillor Hamilton said the council was still in the contract and should have reacted more quickly.

He said: “I am critical of the town clerk for not moving faster to find the town council a different gas supplier that fits the UK’s current attitude to Russia.

“I first saw in April that our supplier was Gazprom when the conflict had already started. I raised the issue as a town council shouldn’t be supplying money for Russian gas.

“In the days gone past, the town clerk has always gone for the best deals. There were around 10 to 15 vendors to choose from and Gazprom was cheapest.

“I understand that the town clerk has to provide value for money but he should have moved us away from Gazprom once the war started.

“We sent more than £1,200 to Gazprom when the war had already started. That was a payment we should have held.

“The reality is that we should do what is right and it shouldn’t be about money. We should move the supplier to good people instead of bad people.

“It is a contrast to how supportive Henley has been to Ukraine, what with flying the Ukrainian flag outside the town hall and taking in refugees.

“I think the sentiment of the town is very clear — that is to do everything we can to support the people of Ukraine.

“They will be shocked that the town hall is still buying energy from Gazprom.”

Mr Howell said: “It’s disgusting. While Ukrainians are dying, I’m amazed that the town council’s sense of identity with the Ukrainian people is so scant that they cannot find an alternative source of energy.

“All I would like to see is the same level of fellow feeling with the Ukrainians as the rest of us have.

“There are many people in Henley who are trying to take in Ukrainian refugees and this will be a kick in the teeth for them.”

Mr Jacklin-Edward said he was still keen to terminate the contract but it was important to avoid “gesture politics”.

He said: “Henley Town Council has publicly denounced the invasion of Ukraine and we actively support and contribute towards the humanitarian efforts in aid of the people of Ukraine.

“As with other UK gas suppliers, Gazprom Energy sources its gas from the wholesale market, including the North Sea and Qatar, rather than directly from the Russian gas producer, Gazprom PJSC.

“We note that Gazprom Energy, which is part of Gazprom Germania, is no longer under Russian control.

“However, we still remain very concerned about where the company’s profits go.

“For that reason, we are keen to end our contact with Gazprom Energy as soon as possible.

“It is important that any action taken by the council is meaningful and not gesture politics.

“As it stands, terminating our contract would mean that Henley Town Council would be liable for damages and be in breach of procurement law. Many councils and institutions up and down the UK are facing the same dilemma.

“The Government has confirmed it will take measures to support local councils and we look forward to receiving further guidance.”

• What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley or email letters

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