Derry Council to check judicial review status after Utility Regulator accept gas price hike

Derry City and Strabane District Council have expressed determination to try to stop to the recent gas price hike of 16.31% announced by Firmus Energy which comes into effect on May 3.

Councillors unanimously agreed to authorise the Lead Legal Services Officer to obtain an independent counsel’s opinion on whether or not the council has standing to apply for a judicial review to challenge the Utility Regulator over its decision to permit the price hikes affecting the Ten Towns area.

City solicitor Philip Kingston briefed members on the legal options and avenues the council can take against the Energy Regulator, after Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle called for the special meeting.

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The Ballyarnett councillor said: “I said at the last full council meeting that we needed to think outside the box and try everything to try and protect people from these energy price rises that seem to have no end in sight.

Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle at the Derry Fuel Poverty Rally in Waterloo Place on Sunday afternoon last. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2213GS – 067

“I don’t buy that this is about Russia and I don’t buy that this is inevitable. The options to us are clear, we need to go and get expert advice as to what we can do legally in acting against the Energy Regulator.” 

Colr. Doyle also claimed: “My aim in all of this is clear, the Energy Regulator has failed its statutory responsibility to protect customers on the price and quality of service they receive from energy companies. The courts have to be our next port of call. 

“I want to see them place a stay on the recent tariff increase on the Ten Towns area and review how public bodies can protect consumers because it is coming from a place of greed, plain and simple.

“We can lead the way in clarifying our powers as a council but make no mistake, if we get the green light to act then we should be reaching out to other councils to join the fight and at least help share the cost.

People hold posters at the Derry Fuel Poverty Rally in Waterloo Place on Sunday afternoon last. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2213GS – 071

“On behalf of all those who are sitting at home cold or are afraid at the thought of buying any more units for their metre I want to move to do three things.

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“That we approve the recommendations here today and immediately seek outside counsel what our powers are.

“That the members here pre-emptively approve that when that advice comes back that we convene another special council meeting to discuss its implications and that we complain formally to the Regulator due to their approval of the price rises which have negatively affected our constituents so that if legal advice determines we aren’t able to take court action we will have already begun a formal process which could lead to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman investigating the complaint.”

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The SDLP elected representative put a couple of questions to the city solicitor, asking: “While we await the legal opinion can we reach out to the other councils in the Ten Towns area to see if there is an appetite there to come on this journey with us on this process and if the judicial review is successful, what is the likely outcome? 

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“Can it be recommended that a freeze is put on energy, particularly gas in the Ten Towns area or is it just going to be a slap on the knuckles for those companies who put these prices up.

“We want this process to have an impact for people and if this process isn’t going to have an impact then I would question what is the point.

“Is our energy better spent lobbying to make sure the minimum wage is increased or are we following a dead duck by following this process?”

Mr Kingston, the city solicitor, explained that there would be no point reaching out to other councils at this stage ‘until such time we establish there is standing’, which is a claim for judicial review.

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He added: “The likely outcome of a successful judicial review, and at this stage I’m not commenting on whether there would be a successful outcome, is that the decision of the Regulator would be quashed and the Regulator would be asked to make a fresh determination.

“The Regulator would have three options available at the end of a fresh determination and that is to remain the status quo, to make a decision which would be less favourable or to make an outcome which could put a freeze on the price or a reduction in the price but it is impossible for us to say.”

UUP Alderman Derek Hussey questioned the cost to council of taking such actions to which the city solicitor replied: “We estimate costs in the region of £60,000 to £80,000. Those are the costs of both sides of the action. If we are successful then the counsel’s cost would have to be met by the Regulator. If we are unsuccessful then as well as our own costs we would have to meet the Regulator’s costs.”

Elected members from all parties agreed that council needed to take some action with Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy speaking of a ‘moral responsibility to act in whatever way we can’, and PBP Councillor Maeve O’Neill stating ‘we need to do all we can to protect those hardest hit by this cost of living crisis.’

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Although voicing her concerns about the time-frame, DUP Alderman Hilary McClintock spoke of the need ‘to do something and make real action happen’ before Councillor Doyle summed up.

He concluded: “We are all in the same boat and we all have people’s best interests at heart so let’s see where this goes. If nothing else we will be able to tell people that we did absolutely everything we could possibly do.”

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter