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Wednesday newspaper round-up: Energy companies, Shale gas, M&S

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Sir John Major calls for windfall tax on energy companies; French utility firm backs UK shale gas projects; M&S to open 150 new food stores.

Sir John Major, former Conservative prime minister, piled pressure on David Cameron to act against the “big six” energy companies, suggesting they should be hit with a windfall tax. Major said it was “unacceptable” that energy companies were raising prices up to 10 per cent, leaving some people with a choice between eating and heating their homes in the event of a cold winter. His comments are a political gift to Labour, echoing some of Ed Miliband’s criticisms in the Financial Times (FT) of “predatory” energy companies and the need for the state to intervene in the event of market failures, the FT writes.

A French state-backed energy giant has thrown its weight behind Britain’s shale gas rush after agreeing to help fund a new drilling programme in Lancashire and Wales. GDF Suez has formed a joint venture with Dart Energy to drill up to 14 wells exploring for both coal bed methane (CBM) – gas strapped in underground coal seams – and for shale gas. It is due to start at the end of the year, The Times reports.

A big hedge fund emerged as the leading private shareholder in Royal Mail yesterday in a disclosure that may rekindle criticism of the sell-off. The Children’s Investment Fund, the hedge fund and activist investor that famously was once described as a locust, has emerged as the largest shareholder, with a 5.8% stake in the postal service. The government has been forced on to the defensive after shares in Royal Mail soared from 330p, when it floated 12 days ago, to as high as 530p, prompting criticism that it had been sold too cheaply, according to The Times.

A trio of Scottish investors has joined forces with one of New York’s most-powerful hedge funds to buy an estimated £250m debt package from Royal Bank of Scotland. Urbicus, a specialist debt business set up by former Noble Group Chief Executive Ben Thomson and Hazeldene’s Mark Shaw, has teamed up with Elliot Associates to acquire part of a debt that backed the troubled Glanmore property fund, The Scotsman reports.

Marks & Spencer is planning to open 150 new food stores in the next three years as its groceries continue to outsell clothes and home-wares. Marc Bolland, the chief executive, said he wanted to double the pace of expansion in food as the company continued to take market share from rivals. M&S called a halt to new clothing and home-wares stores earlier this year. The retailer is also taking its standalone food stores into Europe via its first international food franchise deal after a successful trial of six stores in Holland, The Guardian says.