David Jefferies, the former chairman of National Grid, who has died aged 82, played a central role in the privatisation of electricity, and was later caught in a fierce political row over remuneration for utility chiefs. An electrical engineer with unusually wide hands-on experience of the distribution and generation of power, Jefferies served as chairman of London Electricity Board from 1981 to 1986 before becoming deputy chairman of the Electricity Council (which co-ordinated the views of 12 regional boards and the Central Electricity Generating Board) in the run-up to privatisation.
While other industry leaders (influenced by the way British Gas resisted pressure to break its monopoly) argued both for preservation of the CEGB and for regional boards to be owned by a single company, Jefferies subscribed to a more radical vision of an industry in which generators and suppliers would be free to compete. The structure put in place in 1990 was much in tune with his thinking. CEGB power stations were divided between Powergen, National Power and Nuclear Electric, and independent generators were offered access to the network.
The regional boards became separate businesses but joint owners of the new National Grid company, which would run the transmission system and the national control centre, with Jefferies as its chairman. A man of great persuasive charm, Jefferies got on well with the Conservative energy secretary, John Wakeham, who drove the ambitious privatisation timetable. In his new role at the fledgling National Grid, Jefferies was also a formidable negotiator.
“Words like battle and struggle do not easily spring to his lips,” wrote one reporter, but he was successful both in securing a powerful position as intermediary between the generators and the suppliers and, according to one historian, in the way he “managed to divide the regional boards after privatisation and hence prevent them exercising effective control”.
National Grid emerged under his leadership as much more than a conduit in a complex regulated structure. It became an entrepreneurial business. A telecoms spin-off, Energis, running optical fibre networks through the power grid, was launched in 1992, and in later years it hunted for investment opportunities abroad. In common with all state sell-offs of the era, National Grid directors had been awarded share options which became increasingly valuable and (following a spat over boardroom pay at British Gas) highly politicised.
As the company moved towards its own stock exchange debut in 1995, Labour’s shadow chancellor Gordon Brown attacked Jefferies and his peers as “a magic circle of self-serving utility bosses, helping each other to their millions”. Jefferies’s own position was that he and his team had created a profitable venture “from scratch” and were merely receiving contractual entitlements in line with privatisation norms.
It fell to his wife Jean (after a tabloid published a pictures of their house in Virginia Water with the caption “Luxury”) to defend her husband as a dedicated industrial manager who lived modestly and worked “a 17-hour day, six days a week”. But pressure mounted over a “special dividend”, payable on flotation, which the Conservative energy minister Tim Eggar was reported to have “pleaded in vain” with Jefferies to forego. Despite his high reputation in the industry and Whitehall, the row was widely believed to have cost him the knighthood that would otherwise have been his due.
David George Jefferies was born at Newham in East London on Boxing Day 1933 and educated at local schools, with an interlude as an evacuee in Devon during the war. He studied electrical engineering at South East Essex College of Technology before joining the Southern Electricity Board, where he rose to be area manager for Portsmouth in 1967 and chief engineer in 1972.
Two years later he moved to the Central Electricity Generating Board (a rare transition) as director for the North West; from 1977 to 1981 he was the board’s personnel director. During his time at London Electricity, Jefferies was also involved in planning the wider industry response to the miners’ strike, explaining later that the key strategy had been to reverse normal flows of power southwards from northern coal-fired stations, so that supply could move northwards from nuclear and gas-fired plants.
He was also chairman, from 1994 to 1998, of Viridian, the parent company of Northern Ireland Electricity, which pioneered its own model for the interface between multiple generators and a single distributor. In later years he travelled to many other countries offering advice on industry restructuring and the introduction of private capital.
After leaving National Grid in 1999, Jefferies became a director of the Strategic Rail Authority, created by the Labour government to oversee privatised rail franchises. There, he briefly chaired the strategy committee following the departure of Sir Alastair Morton, who resigned as chairman in October 2001 after transport secretary Stephen Byers effectively renationalised Railtrack without consulting the SRA. Frustrated by politicking and the lack of a clearly defined role, Jefferies also resigned a month later.
He went on to be chairman of the construction and civil engineering group Costain, and was involved in a number of smaller companies. He was at various times president of the Institute of Energy, the Electricity Association and the Institution of Electrical Engineers, a board member of the Royal Institution, and master of the Wax Chandlers’ Company. He was appointed CBE in 1990.
David Jefferies was a talented pianist who in his youth played at Saturday morning children’s cinema shows. Latterly he enjoyed golf at Wentworth and winter holidays in South Africa. He is survived by his wife Jeanette (Jean), née Hanson, whom he married in 1959; they met in childhood when their families were neighbours in Barking. They had no children.
David Jefferies, born December 26 1933, died March 19 2016