In a pathbreaking decision, the First Tier Tribunal has told Southwark Council to refund money paid for District Heating which does not work. The Tribunal, which determines leasehold disputes, ruled that Mr Murat Kaya owed only one quarter of what had been demanded of him. Three quarters of what he had paid must be returned. For District Heating users, such victories are rare.
Mr Kaya, a leaseholder in Eugene Cotter House, sought a refund on nearly £4,000 demanded from him — and from every leaseholder in this council block. Mr Kaya told the Tribunal that before a communal boiler was replaced in 2016, the system worked fine. Since then, there have been constant stoppages of both heat and hot water — eg 13 stoppages between mid November 2019 and 30 January 2020 — and equally constant visits from engineers. For all of this ineffective maintenance work, leaseholders were expected to pay — as well as financing the new boiler itself.
Both leaseholders and tenants have long questioned why they are having to live with such an intermittent service, which plays havoc with their families’ lives and health. Repeated complaints and a petition have failed to bring any improvement.
Celebrating his victory, Mr Kaya says,
“the applicants are me and my next door neighbour only, but now I’m sure lots of other people will follow. We should not be expected to pay for this 2016 replacement, or for maintenance that fails to maintain an acceptable level of service.”
Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) and Fuel Poverty Action (FPA), who both supported Mr Kaya, have been working to ensure that council tenants are able to keep warm despite the endemic problems with Southwark’s ageing and ailing heat networks.
Ruth London of Fuel Poverty action notes, “Mr Kaya’s achievement is all the more important because such judgments are rare. Not many have the courage, tenacity and resources to take on their landlords and suppliers. District Heating can be good, for costs and carbon emissions, but customers cannot switch, and this rapidly expanding industry is still unregulated. Users are at the mercy of suppliers when prices — and capital levies — are outrageously high, or when the heat and hot water constantly break down, or both. With landlords and suppliers much better equipped and funded to pursue legal cases, it is hard for residents to get justice even when their case is very strong.”
Mr Kaya had kept careful documentation, and secured the support of legal counsel: Josef Cannon of Cornerstone Barristers, acting pro bono. Southwark Council, in contrast, was singularly unprepared, and unable to back up their arguments, as noted in the Tribunal’s unequivocal judgment (see paras 59-69). The Local Authority argued that they had fulfilled their obligations — since they always sent a repairman when the system broke down yet again. This logic was roundly rejected.
Mr Cannon said, “The key to this result was the meticulous record-keeping that Mr Kaya maintained over a long period. It allowed us to prove to the tribunal, in a way that could not be gainsaid, quite how intermittent and unsatisfactory the service had been. Residents who experience problems with district heating systems should attempt to keep diaries of the outages and, if they are even half as careful as Mr Kaya, they will be well-placed to prove their case.”
After a hearing held on 27 February, there was a long wait for the judgment, and then for the deadline to expire for a possible appeal. Mr Kaya is now secure in his stunning, and unusual, win, which will have wide implications for district heating users elsewhere.
Ms London adds, “This hearing is a critical moment in a series of similar battles over District Heating that have been taking place around Southwark and nationally. It must not be residents who pay for others’ failures. Nor should they have to go as far as Tribunal to get simple justice or a heating system that works.”
Mr Murat is available to speak to the media, as are other affected residents.
Given the times we are living in, there’s a lot in this Update — and a lot to be done.
The sections are:
The health emergency
Ways forward from this crisis (our own initiatives and others’)
Cladding and insulation
The formatting on our website isn’t amazing – you can also read this in a google doc here
The weather is improving, but for millions, finding money for fuel bills continues to be a crisis, with more energy needed when people are stuck at home, while many incomes are reaching rock bottom and debts are mounting up. People are rationing not only heat and electricity but food. Instead of 2 for 1 offers, shoppers are finding supermarket prices raised — while supermarkets, despite soaring profits, are also benefiting from government crisis funds. One in five families with children is going hungry in this wealthy country — and in poorer parts of the world, famines are under way. Heat, power, and food are essentials for health — as is good housing. Not accidentally, the poorest communities, and particularly people of colour are facing the highest death toll, along with older people, especially in the undervalued, under-resourced, underbelly of care — UK “care homes”, where PPE and testing arrive last for both workers and residents.
This is the horror now being confronted by a groundswell of grassroots people and networks, organising to support our own families and communities and to demand from the government, from politicians and from businesses, a total reversal of priorities. Health must come first, and an economy that prioritises private profit has been shown not to deliver on health. What has long been clear to millions who are fighting over fuel bills, housing, heating, food and inadequate incomes, is now public for the world to see. So are the many money trees that can clearly be found when wanted. The impossible has proved to be both do-able and essential.
At this moment of clarity, and with so many people and organisations coming together, we have a chance to move away from energy markets and housing provision that were already killing 10,000 people a year in cold homes. And at the same time, as the clock nears midnight, we may have a chance to avert the worst of a climate apocalypse.
FPA is a very small, unfunded organisation and we can’t do all we would wish. But like so many others, we are fighting for our lives:
1. Immediate survival
If you are in trouble with your bill or meter, do contact us. FPA are not distributing fuel vouchers — we have no funding, and there are people better placed than us to do this work. However, we are working with people who have raised money for this purpose (eg Repowering London, in Lambeth; SGTO in Southwark – see Covid-19 fundraiser here) and wherever you are, if you let us know, we will do our best to put you in touch with help, including pressing your energy supplier for a better response to your emergency.
We are also keen to hear from you what problems you are having, and whether you have been able to access support, in order to better fuel our pressure on both the government and suppliers. Personal stories can be powerful!
Our first action in response to the Covid crisis was to publicise — but challenge — the agreement reached by the government and energy suppliers. It’s supposed to ensure that people who cannot pay their bills or top up their meters get help. It is far too limited, and we find many people can’t even get through to the help lines. Please see our petition (and sign it, if you haven’t yet). The first demand is immediate free credit for all prepayment meter users so that they are not left in the cold while trying to negotiate with suppliers. The petition has had some good media coverage (below) and has helped shape the public debate. It needs more signatures!
We are following this up with support for a petition put forward by People’s Energy, for a government grant fund to make sure people can get financial support — and not just deferment of payment, landing them further in debt. We believe, however that suppliers who benefit from such a deal with the government, should meet certain conditions, including no dividends while they are in effect receiving public funds. There are, after all, suppliers who have for years left people to die from cold, forced prepayment meters on people (sometimes illegally), lobbied against renewable energy, and benefited from subsidies of fossil fuels. They cannot continue along the same tracks. But with the energy market failing to deliver, a government fund is now a matter of life and death.
We’ve written to the government about these two petitions. Unfortunately so far the response has been pathetic. We have also pressed for the existing protections to be extended to users of District Heating, with some, incomplete, success.
2. Looking forward
FPA are currently supporting several initiatives that you may also want to sign on to, with a view to making sure that we move forward to a liveable world instead of bailing out the forces that have made “normal” a disaster.
Build Back Better
The UK’s Build Back Better campaign is being launched today, Tuesday 12 May, which is International Nurses Day. We’ll be taking part — do join us, beginning today by sharing the video in support of Nurses United UK, which went live at 8.30 am. Build Back Better’s first demand is:
Secure the health of everyone in the UK now and into the future, irrespective of employment or nationality – including for food, healthcare, income, job security, good housing and access to clean and affordable energy and heat, public transport, clean air and green spaces.
We will be pressing forward with specific demands on the “housing” and “energy” parts.
A Care Income
FPA have signed up to an Open Letter to governments demanding an income for carers. Launched by the Global Women’s Strike and Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE) in 12 languages, this letter is supported by grassroots organisations all over the world and is open for signatures (individuals too). It’s particularly relevant now, with the huge increase in unpaid work as we care for our families, neighbours and communities (see GNDE’s Covid-19 statement). But FPA have long supported the principle, which would give many women, particularly, an income that reflects their contribution, and is enough to cover heating and other essentials. As the National Pensioners’ Convention recently wrote to Matt Hancock, “The government must invest in the future by: . . . a national care service [and] . . . Creating an income for ‘informal carers’ – those who save the government billions of pounds each year for the pittance of carer’s allowance or in lots of cases, nothing at all.”
Supporting these initiatives, FPA is extending more to attacking the “Income” side of fuel poverty, while we also contribute to the housing, retrofitting, and heating proposals of Green New Deal organisers — GND UK, GND Europe, and the Scottish “Our Common Home”.
A “Warm Floor”
Prompted by the urgent need for guaranteed heat and power we have picked up again the proposal we started putting forward over a year ago: that everyone should get a certain amount of energy for free — but tariffs would increase for energy used above and beyond that “floor”. This would reverse the perverse present situation where people who can’t afford much energy, or who cut their usage for the climate, pay more per unit than those who use a lot. Combined with protections for people who actually need a lot of energy, this “Warm Floor” would provide a level of security. Please get in touch if you would like to help us work through whether and how this can best be implemented.
Contracts for a real difference
We’ve endorsed an open letter to the government, from Biofuelwatch, which you may want to sign on to here. It’s pretty technical but is focused on making sure that moves towards “green energy” end up being the real thing, and not a con, like many forms of biofuel.
Campaigning is not extremism
We have also signed onto the open letter calling for the National Police Chiefs Council to confirm – before the lockdown is over – that it will abandon the categorisation of political campaigning activities as “domestic extremism”. Netpol want to close this letter off by the end of this week — if you want to support the right to protest, and to organise in these critical and unpredictable times, you may want to sign on as well.
3. Fire and cold
We’ve continued to support residents of Pendleton high rise estate in Salford, who have lived for three years in buildings that have Grenfell-style cladding, and all the same other fire dangers as those found in Grenfell itself. Not even the faulty fire doors have been fixed. The cost to these social housing tenants’ mental health has been disastrous, and made worse by the social landlord. Pendleton Together have been ordering tenants indoors when they’ve been out of the building more than half an hour — and threatening them with the police or implications for their tenancies. We’ve rounded up support for them including from their MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.
Meanwhile in Parliament, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has published the findings of a survey into progress in dealing with fire risks since Grenfell. 1,352 people completed the survey, which found that:
70% of respondents had different forms of combustible cladding and many had other fire safety issues like inadequate fire breaks (34%), and combustible or missing insulation (30%).
Residents’ mental health is still in pieces from living in flammable buildings, and many are also paying a high price financially, eg for 24-hour fire watch services.
As the number of buildings facing re-cladding continues to expand, with residents fighting for the inclusion of buildings under 18 M high and with different types of flammable cladding, we’re continuing to raise the issue of homes being cold when cladding is off, succeeding. We’ve helped get this included in others’ campaigns, eg here.
4. District Heating
When the virus struck, we were just beginning a series of meetings with residents on Southwark’s many council estates which are served by ageing and dysfunctional district heating networks. Loss of heating and hot water happen all the time and residents, both tenants and leaseholders, are desperate. While pressing for more lasting solutions, we have worked with Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) to make real a promise that the Council made last year: that at least people would not be out of pocket during break-downs when they’re forced to pay for electric space heaters and hot water. Pre-lockdown we had a good meeting with the Council on the subject of this compensation. It is understandable that follow-up has been delayed, but it is now even more urgent. People in crisis can’t be expected to shoulder these extra costs.
Leaseholders in Southwark, and in New Festival Quarter private estate in Tower Hamlets, have been fighting demands for huge sums of money to pay for repairs to their heating system which do not improve things, and/or which should be covered by insurance claims or snagging. We are also supporting them.
And we are actively supporting tenants on a Peabody estate, also in Tower Hamlets, who have been fighting for a fair tariff for their district heating — backdated to when they moved in, last September, having been given no contract or information about their heat. They have made some progress.
After years of pressure from ourselves and others, the government are finally consulting on regulations for the District Heating industry. We will be submitting evidence to this, by 1 June, based on reports from users round the country – do send your experience in.
Finally, if you would like to offer regular financial (or other!) support to FPA, please let us know. We will shortly be launching a scheme called “Friends of FPA” for regular contributors, and it would be great to start out with a few named supporters.
As the Covid 19 crisis unfolds, we are, as anticipated, hearing far too much about people forced into acute fuel poverty through self-isolation and/or loss of income. Gig economy workers have found themselves unable to access government support. The government furlough scheme is kicking in too slowly to help people get their bills paid now, and for those on low incomes 80% of usual earnings won’t stretch far enough. People who can usually afford to cover their needs are finding themselves choosing between adequate food and adequate heat and power. Both are crucial for health. As the weather improves, there are still cold nights and days, extra needs for power for people home all day, money still owed from the spring and winter, and crushing anxiety about the year ahead.
The government made an agreement with suppliers to suspend disconnections and to support customers at risk. In practice, it isn’t working. What we are hearing is that companies generally won’t, or can’t, reduce bills – most will at best offer deferrals which for some just means the frightening reality of unpayable debts for the future.
Graeme Langton, from Salford says,
Help should be automatic if you’re on a low income, then you might say, ok, I can have it on for that extra hour. It’s no good if you have to wait till you can produce the bill and apply. You ask yourself, will I put the heating on in the hope that the government will give a bit back? What if they say no? If you get in debt, you could lose your home. And there’ll be interest on it, and 200% for overdrafts. Supermarkets have put prices up. There’s no more 2 for 1 offers, instead the food prices have gone sky high. It’s either eat or keep warm.
In addition, there is a risk of some small companies going bankrupt, without a workable rescue plan for their customers.
To help those in crisis now, the government needs to set up an energy relief fund. This has been advocated by the People’s Energy company, an independent energy supplier that provides 100% renewable power and has pledged to give 75% of profits back to its customer-members through an annual rebate. We are convinced too that vital immediate needs will not be met without this sort of intervention. Government support would transform the implementation of the agreement reached with the energy industry, in line with our ownpetition.
Strings should be attached. For some energy companies, large and small, such support for customers who cannot pay their bills could be critical to their survival as well as that of their customers. We cannot forget that some of these firms have been responsible for many deaths from fuel poverty, forceful imposition of unwanted prepayment meters, a failure to prioritize energy efficient homes, and promoting fossil fuels over renewable sources of energy. As this current crisis continues and with time, recedes, it is crucial to ensure that that model of supply does not continue to cause death and suffering. If companies are going to benefit from this scheme, they should be required to commit to changes which will benefit their most vulnerable customers now and in the future.
These should include:
Thorough adherence to the terms of the agreement, to include short response times to customers in trouble, and a readiness to write off debts where paying them would leave people unable to meet basic needs for energy, rent and food.
Immediate free credit to users of prepayment meters so they are not cut off while they are trying to negotiate with suppliers. This should not be refundable — no storing up debt for the future. And standing charges should be waived — they disproportionately hit people who have cut their usage to a bare minimum, but cannot access any power till they’ve covered the standing charge.
Ambitious insulation programmes — installing safe and appropriate insulation is the best way of bringing down bills. Government programmes were slashed eight years ago, and responsibility for this vital work passed to suppliers. Home insulation installations plummeted by 95% between 2012 and last year.
As is commonplace in Europe, companies being supported by government bail-outs should not be paying dividends to shareholders or huge salaries and bonuses to executives. While some energy suppliers are in financial trouble, we are coming to the easiest part of the year for them, and they are benefiting from the fact that wholesale prices of gas and oil have fallen like a stone, which has not been reflected in the price cap. Support for desperate customers must not end up as a windfall for people in no need at all.
Other companies might take a leaf out of People’s Energy’s book on customer service and response to the crisis so many people face. Their customers can expect to get through to them in 18 seconds. The emergency fund they have set up themselves raised £27k within the first day, and is helping them to start addressing customers’ needs.
But the reality is that the scale of the crisis means that government support is needed, and needed now.
“Sustainable infrastructure” — housing and heating
District Heating (DH) is like central heating for a whole building, housing estate, or area: heat is produced at a central point and distributed, in the form of hot water, via pipes. It is being heavily promoted, subsidised and incentivised by the UK central government and by the Mayor of London, on the grounds that it will help to reduce carbon emissions due to heating — which represent nearly 1/5 of carbon emissions in total. But will this be at the cost of the people who use it? And will it actually work? Will the promise of lower emissions result in real carbon savings, or will the changes brought in in the name of the climate just profit unaccountable developers and energy corporations? How can we make “green” come true?
The London Plan
The new London Plan now being finalised by the Mayor will lay down plans and policies for London for the next 20 – 25 yrs. It is in the final stages of a process of consultation which has been remarkably democratic, within the restrictions sent by central government policies and funding constraints. A draft was made available and submissions accepted from a very wide range of organisations and individuals, all were made publicly available, the draft was revised and published again, and is finally being subjected to detailed “Examination in Public” — EiP — at City Hall.
Fuel Poverty Action were glad to be invited to take part in the session on Sustainable Infrastructure, on 29 March 2019. The discussion took for granted the seriousness of the climate crisis and a determination to decarbonise. Its particular focus was on heating — one of the hardest areas to make green — and within that, the focus was largely on the Mayor’s favoured option: District Heating.
The EiP assembled formidable expertise, hearing from representatives of the DH industry, architecture, planning, and energy consultancies. Yet there had clearly been no process for engaging grassroots participants, and no expectation that DH users’ experience would be relevant to policy decisions, at the EiP stage, or earlier.
A failure to protect London residents or the environment
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that the proposed measures in relation to DH had two crucial failures:
a) they fail to protect residents on DH estates, locked into decades-long contracts with a monopoly heat supplier, and
b) they fail to guarantee carbon savings and in fact leave the door open to technology with relatively high emissions both of carbon and of nitrous oxide (NOx), threatening London’s already dire air quality.
There does not have to be a conflict between decarbonising infrastructure and making it more affordable and reliable for users. In fact FPA is founded on the premise that policies that create such a contradiction between sustainability and social justice are deadly to our chances of achieving not only a just transition but any transition at all, as people refuse to accept unjust solutions.
After focusing first on greenhouse gas emissions targets, the “carbon offset” scheme for developments, and embodied carbon, much of the morning at the EiP focused on two paragraphs in the London Plan where Mayor lays out how he intends to prioritise DH.
Planning in problems
FPA is in no way opposed to DH on principle. We have, in fact, supported residents fighting hard to maintain an existing council DH system (sadly, they lost, and had individual gas boilers imposed). We work with residents living with horrendously unreliable DH systems, constant outages, cold hot water, overheating, sky high prices and demands for major capital costs from leaseholders, but we do not believe these problems are intrinsic to DH, which often works very well in other parts of the world, and sometimes in the UK (eg in Aberdeen).
The problems arise from bad planning leading to inappropriate choices of where to use DH, and how it should be fuelled and designed; lack of regulation, monitoring and enforcement of standards; lack of training and skills for the workforce that must design, install and maintain the heat networks; lack of any clear line of accountability through the multiple layers of contractors involved in construction; and a system of procurement and finance for heat networks that seems designed to encourage the highest possible costs and the lowest standards.
On 29 March we were dealing with one aspect of this quagmire: planning. Many very cogent and important contributions which can be heard here. However, no transcript is available, and we are able here only to offer the points we made ourselves, and the responses to them.
In the light of how DH often works out in practice, we asked: should it be presumed that for the next two decades it will necessarily be the best solution to the heating dilemma? And what should be done to ensure that where it is installed, it does what it says on the tin?
In the draft Plan, a “Heat Networks Priority Area” covers most of London, and “Major development proposals within Heat Network Priority Areas should have a communal low-temperature heating system.” This does not mean that DH will ultimately be chosen – it is rarely developers’ first choice. But the GLA’s clear preference is powerful, and in any case all such new developments must be DH ready.
What are the alternatives?
The draft Plan lays down a list of factors which must be considered in deciding what form of heating to install in a development. In response to consultation, an addition was made to the list: “11A) opportunities to maximise renewable electricity generation and incorporate demand-side response measures.” But the rest of the list concerns specific questions related to District Heating with no detailed consideration of other options. There is no indication of whether “maximising electricity generation” might mean community owned and run renewable energy, solar panels on individual homes, or commercial power plants. Heat pumps, absent from this list, are barely mentioned in the draft Plan, along with solar thermal, solar PV, wind and hydro power.
Crucially, in a chapter on energy and heat, there is nothing on energy efficiency, despite the fact that very well insulated homes can make any form of heating unnecessary except on a few days each year. Unlike DH, energy efficiency measures are repeatedly presented as being contingent on central government funding. And there are no specifics, no indication of the need to avoid insulation being left out of new builds by self-certifying construction contractors, or retrofitted in old buildings so badly that they’re damp and less healthy than before. Nothing on the risks of toxic and flammable materials, that have both been so tragically highlighted by Grenfell.
The cost to residents
In the hearing, we focused most on the fact that the Plan writes in no protection at all for DH users – no protection from networks that prove unreliable, or that do not in practice yield the carbon benefits in the name of which they are prioritised, due to oversizing, poor design or maintenance, or promised “green” components that never materialise.
District Heating is delivered by “Heat Networks”, and in the Plan most of London falls in “Heat Network Priority Areas. Outside these areas, development proposals must “avoid high energy bills for occupants”, but inside these areas there is no equivalent requirement. We pointed out that the Competition and Markets Authority has recently found that the protection of future consumers is inadequate in London, with little transparency or genuine customer engagement and that as a result they may end up paying a high price for new green infrastructure which does not benefit them personally (or, we would add, benefits them no more than any other person living on the planet). FPA pointed out that this is just what happened in Lambeth’s Myatts Field North where a DH system was effectively imposed by the then Greater London Council, and that there is nothing in the draft London Plan to prevent that happening again. It is also just the kind of unjust and high-handed decision that the Yellow Vests in France have been protesting. We pointed out that the CMA made clear that more protection should be built in at the planning stage and that it was shocking, after Grenfell and the Hackitt review, to find no recognition of any need for consultation with residents.
Combined Heat and Power
Worryingly, FPA also said the draft Plan is ambiguous on the continued use of Combined Heat and Power — the system where combustion is used to create both heat and electricity. With its dual purpose, and the income created by sale of electric power, gas CHP has obvious advantages. The draft Plan implies that it is generally ruled out because of NOx emissions. In addition, as electricity decarbonises, burning gas appears less and less like a low carbon alternative. There are alternative renewable or waste heat energy sources for DH, eg secondary sources like the underground, industry or the Thames, augmented by heat pumps, but a really satisfactory replacement for gas CHP has not yet been found. The draft Plan, accordingly, includes a get-out clause, saying gas CHP could still be used, although “only where there is a case for CHP to enable the delivery of an area-wide heat network”.
In response to FPA’s question on this, the chair probed and determined that CHP had been moved down the hierarchy of preferences, since the last London Plan, but had not been ruled out. Dismayed, FPA said the vague language about “making a case”, with no criteria stated, gave the industry carte blanche to continue with a polluting technology. The Mayor’s team responded that the rules on NOx emissions for CHP plants were very stringent,. The worry remains that without fixed guidelines, the new London Plan could end up perpetuating fossil fuel technology. There is not even a requirement that systems should be readily convertable to renewable energy sources, eg with suitably sized pipes and radiators.
Meanwhile, two representatives of firms dealing in energy from waste, pressed this as an alternative source of CHP. Labour AM Leonie Cooper replied that a decision had already been taken that producing both heat and power from waste has not proved to be efficient, and that there were other ways of dealing with waste – particularly by reducing it. Leonie Cooper had also led round tables, and had heard first hand the reality of life for residents living with problematic DH networks. She said the “comments made by FPA and alluded to by others” were “extremely important”, and that many heat networks were in bad repair, and it would be a “travesty” to install more that would turn out to be problematic.
Accountability to residents
The other critical issue dealt with was relief for residents locked into existing DH systems that are not working well. When we pressed on this — and gave examples from residents’ campaigns in Southwark, Hillingdon, and Tower Hamlets — the Mayor’s office acknowledged that it was important to look at these schemes and see what support can be offered. Major improvements can be retrofitted that can halve the costs of heating and massively improve reliability. FPA’s view is that this should be done everywhere where there is a major problem — which, from all the surveys done, appears to be a minority of networks — and that heat providers should be subject to licensing, to ensure that existing schemes are rescued before new ones are built.
In repeated submissions to the GLA on energy and housing issues, and to BEIS and the CMA (all available here), FPA have laid out residents’ experience and made proposals for how District Heating could be made accountable to them. This is not a side issue — in the present global emergency ways must be found to cut carbon emissions that lead to real, enforceable results — and that also serve, engage, and benefit people who are struggling to keep warm.
FPA’s Ruth London reports back from two EU meetings in Brussels, 11 February 2019
In January FPA received an invitation from the person coordinating energy work at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an official body representing Europe’s “organised civil society” inside the EU structures.
The Committee was holding a session on “energy close to the citizens”, and the European Anti-Poverty Network had pointed out that the planned discussion included big NGOs, but no one with their feet on the ground, “close to the citizens”. As a member of Europe’s Right to Energy Coalition, Fuel Poverty Action was put forward to bring the discussion down to earth.
We asked to speak about situations where we’d seen ”green” initiatives conflict with immediate needs. Kristian Krieger welcomed that focus on “tensions between theory and practice”, “where a green initiative has frictions with objectives linked to social/economic and political equality/empowerment of citizens.” That is, where people are fighting to ensure they can keep warm and pay their bills.
So we were glad to take part, and keen to hear what is being done in the dozens of other countries represented in that hall, where many have a record of trying to raise awareness of fuel poverty.
FPA is a grassroots organisation, currently unfunded, and we’re not used to speaking in the chambers of power, with translation into up to 15 languages. But we brought a strong message from the UK.
Our points were received with respect and interest at the first session, where we gave examples of policies brought in for the sake of saving carbon, that ended up impacting users badly — and being so unaccountable that in the end, they are not even green. And where I spoke about pricing needing to be both affordable and fair, and how raising prices — hitting hardest those who can least afford it — is not an acceptable, or a viable way to bring about change. (That speech, with examples, is below.)
But it was in the second session that I felt FPA’s experience really made an impact. (also below) I told the story of District Heating in Myatts Field North, and how people had struggled for years to get it working. I referred to the long fight of Grenfell Tower residents to ensure that their building was not a tinderbox. And I said that in the midst of all the talk about “listening to citizens”, all the focus groups and “consultations”, people who are actively speaking out, shouting, screaming to be heard, and organizing are being systematically ignored, disempowered, disbanded, shut out of their community rooms, or threatened with eviction or the police.
Asked for “solutions” for the EU, I suggested what we have long been pressing in the UK: using funding as a lever, requiring a clean track record from any applicants for new projects, forcing them to clean up disasters they have created before coming back for more.
In response to the issue of energy prices, I also floated for the first time the idea of a “warm floor” — a certain minimum level of energy that should be available free, or at low cost, to every household, guaranteeing security during a time of transition.
Our “warm floor” proposal was welcomed (as it was, two days later, at Labour Energy Forum’s public meeting about a Green New Deal) and will be discussed further. But it was the issue of unaccountability that really struck home, in an assembly that is consulted in the process of developing policies, including those related to funding worth many millions of Euros. One representative spoke of his relief at the frank discussion; he said some projects he knew of ended up just making profits for criminals. Others identified a need to pay much more attention to “inspection and enforcement”, and how they should look to support not only projects but people’s “campaigns”.
And one Committee member later proposed that endorsement of FPA’s “Energy Bill of Rights”, as displayed on each member’s monitor throughout this debate, should be a condition for acceptance of new initiatives. I think the Energy Bill of Rights would need some adaptation but we’ve now been invited to actively pursue this proposal with the EESC.
Both sessions were a crucial learning experience for me, not least for the vision put forward at the start of the session, of a world of energy “prosumers” producing energy from small renewable sources, sharing it with neighbours and consuming it themselves. And also for the welcome acknowledgment that “you cannot fundamentally transform energy systems without the consumers and their taking ownership of the process.”
We were very warmly thanked by the EESC energy coordinator, who writes (his emphasis):
“Your intervention(s) were very much appreciated by TEN President Pierre Jean Coulon and the members of the TEN Section of the EESC. In fact, this has triggered among members a very strong interest in hearing more from the “sharp end of energy poverty” and campaigning organisations.” He promises to keep in touch “even though the 29 March may make things a lot more difficult at least for UK-based organisations such as yours.”
“Points of friction”
Speech for European Economic and Social Committee
Brussels 11 February 2019, morning
FPA is a small unfunded group working with people on the sharp end of fuel poverty, working to amplify their voices and their power.
In Europe, we’re part of the Right to Energy coalition. I want to thank you for inviting us, it’s great to be here with you all. We’ve been asked to talk about green initiatives clashing with social and economic goals. I only have time for a couple of examples.
District Heating – Heat Networks
In the UK DH is now being heavily promoted and subsidised by the government, because it’s supposed to be greener. I understand heat networks often work very well in Europe, and sometimes they do in the UK.
But on many housing estates, residents have had DH forced on them, in this case by environmental policy of the GLA.
On many estates the heating breaks down all the time, leaving people days or weeks without heat or hot water. And the prices can be horrendous. Exceptionally, residents on this one estate, run by Trafford Housing Trust, managed to get their prices cut in half.
But many other estates have to put up with being ripped off and sometimes paying capital costs as well.
A lot of residents feel they’re being asked to bear the cost of bringing in a new greener heating infrastructure for London. They don’t see why they should pay! I spoke recently to a Residents Association chairman on a DH estate. He said “you know, the local authority are worried about the CLIMATE!!” I said, “I’m worried about the climate too”. He said, “well so am I” and we both said — “but the heating has to work.” The problem here is that a green policy is being imposed, with no accountability, and no one listens to the people who have to use it.
And as a result, the network is so inefficient that it is not even green.
There are very similar issues with heat pumps and smart meters. I have no time to go into them.
2. My second example is insulation
For most of us insulation has always been the big Win Win – lower carbon, lower cost for residents. What’s not to like? After the Grenfell Tower fire insulation was removed from tower blocks because of the fire risk, and we started a campaign for Safe Cladding and Insulation Now, because we were worried about people freezing. In the UK an average of 9-10,000 people die each winter [17,000 last year] because their homes are cold. Insulation matters. But. Every month the Grenfell community have a silent march to remember the dead, and then speeches by survivors and their neighbours.
And one time, I heard a speaker get up and warn everybody — “Watch out! They are trying to insulate homes in this area. Whatever you do, don’t let them insulate your home!” That was because the insulation was not only flammable but toxic. The whole area is toxic now, the schools, the playgrounds,wherever smoke went.
And many insulation materials and modern window materials are toxic even when they are not burnt, especially toxic to unborn babies. Also fitting insulation can block ventilation and leave homes damp, worse than before. There are victims’ groups, of people with insulation fitted badly. Again, the problem is incompetence, corruption, unaccountability, lack of regulation and inspection, and lack of CHOICE. Of course there are many people fighting FOR insulation – but they are being refused!
What counts is not just intention but the reality, not just policy but practice, and whether people have control.
This affects not only warmth but what people think of climate policies.
3. My third example is Carbon Taxes
I want to speak here not about the carbon price floor but about the so-called “green levies” on people’s energy bills levies that pay for ecological and social measures. The whole levy is only around 10% of energy bills and a lot of it has nothing to do with the environment. But the energy companies and the right wing media act like climate policies are the reason why people can’t afford heating. That is one of the fossil fuel industry’s LIES. It has made headway. Pensioners have told us that climate change is not real, it’s just a con to put up prices. The movement has been held back decades by that kind of lie. HOWEVER. for many people that 10% IS still a lot of money. People are going cold, and many are also hungry. There’s always an assurance that the government will “protect the vulnerable”. But that means means-testing, and many people, even the poorest, even disabled people who desperately need to keep warm, get excluded from the protection. And even middle class families can find it very hard to pay. Nobody is talking about protecting them.
I know carbon taxes have been the foundation of many countries’ green programmes, not only to raise money but to drive the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. And I know there have been some ideas on how to return the money to the people, different kinds of Energy Dividend, or how to make sure that everyone has access to a basic level of energy, and it’s the high users who pay more, not the low users paying more per unit, like at present. That is something I would really like to explore with you. But the Gilets Jaunes – the Yellow Vests – have forced everyone to look again at the whole strategy.
I saw M Hulot, ex environment minister in a debate with the Gilets Jaunes on French TV practically begging them, the climate crisis is so serious, we HAVE to have a price signal. But the Gilets Jaunes spokesman had two points. get real, we can’t afford it, he did not believe that carbon taxes would WORK.
The fact is, price increases, through tax or whatever, are inherently unjust. Some people can’t afford to drive to work, but other people fly a private jet. Some people can’t afford to heat one room, but others leave all the lights and heat on in a 10 room mansion, or an office block. It feels like AUSTERITY all over again — working class people being asked to pay for the bank crisis.
And people internationally are saying NO. Even when “protections” or dividends are there. People don’t see what good it will do for them to suffer when the really big polluters go free 71% of the world’s carbon emissions are caused by 100 corporations, 50% of emissions from consumption are caused by just 10% of people. The biggest culprits – energy, steel, agriculture, and aviation are often exempt from carbon taxes. The wealthiest people, and massive corporations have lots of ways to avoid paying tax.
In the UK the distrust of the government – ANY government – goes very, very deep. The transition we need will not happen without the wholehearted involvement of the population. That is very unlikely when there is such a credibility gap.
I know there have been many very good policies put forward in Europe, including efforts to involve and reward the public. But without accountability, and without much more action against the really big polluters, the most powerful interests, you will not get public engagement on the scale we need, if we are going to survive this century. In the meantime I have a lot more examples but out of time. (Later, for instance, I would love to discuss your experience of old rural buildings that cannot be made energy efficient and are off-grid, using oil – another point of contradiction between social goals and climate goals)
But now I will only say this — the words “just transition,” in English at least, usually refer to safeguarding jobs. But a genuinely just transition has to begin at home.
How can green policies be accountable?
Speech by Ruth London, Fuel Poverty Action
EU energy think tank meeting, Brussels 11 Feb 2019 afternoon
*Please note this speech was slightly edited for clarity and context during and since the event*
Recap – Clashes and Carbon Tax
This morning I gave 3 examples of where there is a clash, or an apparent clash between green policies and economic and social justice. I spoke about where green policies are carried out very badly in practice, about heat networks — installed in the UK with no accountability, so the result is not even energy efficient. And about insulation being installed just as badly — flammable, toxic, or leads to damp. And then I spoke about a form of carbon tax, the “green levies” on our bills in Britain, and I said the levies are actually very small, but still hard for people to afford. And in general, I spoke about how people are rejecting paying any extra to fight climate change when the big polluters are being allowed to carry on doing much more damage.
UK Report – Poverty
I think almost everywhere in the world there is real poverty so even a very small extra cost on your bill really matters. Recently, the UK has changed. I know we’re not poorest in Europe let alone the rest of the world! But a lot of our housing is slums.A lot of people are begging. Asylum seekers are destitute. The new welfare system called UC has systematically targeted disabled people and single mothers. A lot of children are hungry, and millions are cold. And this is before Brexit!
UK Report – Climate
At the same time in the UK there is a big awakening about climate. Roads being blocked, schools strikes, like everywhere. There is Direct Action being taken against fracking and gas. 85% of public back renewables. 76% support onshore wind, which would be much cheaper than the really high cost nuclear energy they’re forcing us to pay for. But onshore wind has been banned by the government, and they’ve also cut support for household solar panels, community energy and insulation programmes. Instead they are forcing through so-called green initiatives that end up being profitable businesses but really bad for residents.
More examples of clash
Besides District Heating, a lot of people are having trouble with, Air pumps. Local Authorities put in lot of these Nibe heaters into social housing. They have good intentions. I think you have Nibe, Swedish company, bet it works in Sweden, but in UK disaster. In some places they are all having to be removed. Another eg: Smart meters – that show you your consumption in real time. These are being heavily pushed on people. People are worried about radiation, and worried about being disconnected remotely by radio signal if get into arrears. It’s absurd, many of the smart meters they’re putting in now won’t work if you switch supplier; there’s a new kind that will, but they won’t wait for that, there’s a great rush to put them in now to meet targets so they can be said to be doing something green. Meanwhile no one understands why smart meters are greener in the first place!
We’re all very suspicious. There is absolutely no trust.
Listening to people when they organise
I want to go back to what I ended with this morning – listening to people when they speak and when they organise.
Myatts field north
I want to tell a story, that I think has implications for EU funding (maybe not in the UK!) Remember the first slide I showed this morning of resistance on a south London housing estate. There are actually two estates, or one broken into two, called Myatts Field North and Myatts Field South. This all used to be served by an old District Heating system, run by the Local Authority, and paid for through rent, at a flat rate. Then Myatts Field North was regenerated, with new modern buildings, that are well insulated. And they created a big community centre with EU funding. It has exercise classes, a cafe, meeting rooms, and computers, etc. The front desk there is a contact point for problems on the estate and resident engagement. Ok, so, under pressure from an environment-conscious London Mayor, the borough imposed on Myatts Field North a new District Heating system run by E.ON. And the heating didn’t work, and the bills and customer service are horrendous. In fact one elderly gentleman, after going to that community centre front desk again and again about his energy bills, actually died in his cold home.
It hadn’t only been him trying to get heard. There is a veryactive Residents Association, you saw one of residents demos.
This is near Brixton, where there have been riots. It is a largely Black area, and the Residents Association was led by very active Black women, and they were very effective. So the Residents Association won status as a Monitoring Board for the whole project. And they fought like tigers, they got help from an academic, FPA got involved on the heating front. We had loads of meetings. We;
organised deputations of residents to BEIS – the central government department that is promoting DH, and they listened very hard to the residents, for two hours,
brought in Heat Trust – body supposed to represent the interests of DH customers,
went to the GLA, the Greater London Authority, which had ordered the Heat Network in first place,
documented everything in 100 page long report, Not Fit For Purpose, with the academic.
and finally a whole load of residents, and FPA and the academic, went to a big meeting with the head of heat networks at E.ON.
In the end we did get some improvements – but only improvements. It is still a terrible system. And in the meantime, the Residents Association and its chair are worn out, exhausted. That matters. The formal procedures for accountability were there — Monitoring Board had regular meetings in the community hall with the LA and the estate management, to call them to account in front of the residents, who could speak, and did speak. But they ran into brick walls everywhere.
Myatts field south
Here’s the irony. At same time, Myatts Field South lost their beloved flat rate District Heating altogether. They fought for it.People refused to let builders into their flats to put in individual gas boilers. Those people were taken to court. So Myatts Field South fought for DH and lost it, Myatts Field North had it forced on them.
Listening – Organising
We hear a lot of talk about governments listening, reaching out, setting up focus groups. But when people are actually organising, the door is slammed in their face.
Same with Insulation
It’s the same with insulation and fire safety. You may know, Grenfell Action Group had been warning about this fire for years. One of the key recommendations of the Hackitt report into the Grenfell fire is that residents should have access to an independent body with enforcement powers so they can say what’s really going on.
Of course not everyone organises. But if there were some protection, some resources and empowerment for groups when they do come together, if there were more VICTORIES, more success, then a lot more engagement would spring up like magic.
Instead, routinely now Residents Asociations are being dissolved or decapitated or shut out of community rooms. There are threats of eviction. One suspended RA chairman had a letter from his Housing Association threatening to call the police on him because he’d been going door to door delivering a petition.
Same with Fracking
You can see the same thing in a completely different area, fracking protests.
Massive community organisation, with support of climate activists, has camped for years at the gates of fracking sites. Mobilised thousands of signatures to local authorities, and won – the local authorities came out against fracking. What happens? The government passed a law taking the decision out of their hands and saying central govt will decide on local planning decisions. Meantime people have been arrested, and assaulted, and jailed, for protesting against fracking.
I know there’s been a lot of recognition in Europe of the importance of citizen engagement in environmental policies. People are working hard on this. But I wonder if even here, you listen to people when on their own initiative they raise complaints and make demands?
Maybe you can think of mechanisms for accountability via EU funding. Our principle for local and national funding has always been, no company or agency should get funding or planning permission if they haven’t dealt with serious complaints about the schemes they’ve set up already. (a bit like disbarring sex offenders from working with children). I imagine this principle could apply to lots of fields – renewables,, even community energy. Could make a lot of difference to people having confidence in green policies.
I would really appreciate your comments on that, and in addition, I want to ask you another question — about pricing. In 2014 we issued our Energy Bill of Rights
Number 1: We all have the right to affordable energy to meet our basic needs.
Number 2: We all have the right to energy that does not harm us, the environment or the climate.
And then it says, We all have the right to a fair energy pricing system that does not penalise those who use less. Because with standing charges energy pricing is not only unaffordable but unfair.We pay more per unit if we use less. You might use less because you are trying to save the planet or it might be because you can’t afford it. Either way, you are penalised.
Is that normal in EU?
Isanyone making proposals to reverse this, so you pay a higher rate if you use more?
Is anyone putting forward a perspective of basic energy – a certain ration that everyone’s entitled to free of charge or for very little? This would provide security in a time of change, until the investment in renewable energy brings the ongoing cost of all energy down to very little.
We are actively considering this. You all are way ahead of us in working on these questions, and I am keen to know what you think.
Keeping the heat and lights on is a major worry now for people who may be home all the time and may have lost income. The government and suppliers have agreed some help. You should not be disconnected — and there are also protections for people on prepayment meters.
If you can’t get out to top up, or your emergency credit has run out CONTACT your energy supplier for help NOW. You can find their contact details online or on your bill.
Your supplier can add credit to your account or sending you a pre-loaded card or key.
However, FPA are concerned that the agreement will still leave many people in the dark and cold (for the exact provisions see here and a summary at the bottom of the petition, below. So we’ve started a petition! Please SIGN and help circulate it as widely as you can.
The agreement between the government and the energy suppliers say that people struggling to top up prepayment key or card meters will be able to contact their suppliers to discuss ‘having a discretionary fund added to their credit, or being sent a pre-loaded top up card so that their supply is not interrupted.’ Others having difficulties with energy costs should also be supported by measures ‘which could include debt repayments and bill payments being reassessed, reduced or paused where necessary’.
As for so many organisations, autumn 2019 has been particularly busy.
1. Safe cladding and insulation — again!
As the Grenfell community and people round the country await the critically important Moore-Bick report on the fire, due this Wednesday, many remain in crisis about their own situations. In the words of Edward Daffarn of Grenfell United, “Thousands of people go to sleep at night in homes effectively covered with liquid paraffin. The fact is that this catastrophe was predictable. . . . Accidents do happen, but this wasn’t an accident.”
On 17 October we delivered to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) a second Open Letter on safe cladding and insulation — following the SCIN campaign’s first edition exactly one year before. This time, the letter had over 80 weighty signatures collected in just over a week, including six national unions, nine MPs from three parties and many other organisations furious that the commitments made on replacing flammable cladding have not been met. And furious, also, that programmes to install insulation have been cut by over 90%, while thousands die each year from the cold. Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad delivered the letter after MHCLG had refused to meet residents!
For a report, supporters, and the letter itself, see here; for more photos see below.
2. Heating, housing, and local authorities
In several London boroughs we’ve been feeding in residents’ experiences on housing and heating systems to local groups trying to get their local authorities to act on the climate emergency that many have declared. We’ve been working with Sustainable Hackney, XR Southwark, Friends of the Earth Lambeth, and various initiatives in Brent. We’ve also taken part in discussions on the potential local provisions of a Green New Deal. Many policies and projects can immediately help people keep warm, but they need to be planned and executed accountably. New heating systems must bring bills down — not up! — and insulation must avoid creating damp homes, toxic air, or, of course, fire risks.
3. Climate mobilisations
FPA has taken part in the mobilisations on climate being organised everywhere as the world increasingly wakes up to this critical moment in the earth’s history. On 20 September we took the SCIN banner — Safe Cladding and Insulation Now! — to the UK Student Climate Network strike in London — and had dozens of interested queries on the lines of, “what’s that got to do with it?” Insulation, a key weapon against carbon emissions — has yet to make it onto many mainstream climate organisers’ agenda.
Then, during Extinction Rebellion’s October uprising, we joined the Global Justice Rebellion at St James Park and then — when evicted — Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, to discuss different demands and battles for survival, especially in the Global South. We brought to these discussions our more UK-based demands for climate justice — here.– and our experience of battles over housing and heating and the thorny issue of subsidies, carbon taxes and the rising price of fossil fuels. Global Justice Rebellion signed our Open Letter and helped organise for the MHCLG event (above), and we are continuing to work with them.
4. Green New Deals and the Universal Energy Allowance
We’ve taken part in discussions about the Green New Deal in the UK, but have contributed most significantly to the Green New Deal for Europe. GNDE’s report, worked on intensively all over the continent and recently submitted to the EU’s Vice President, included FPA’s proposal for a universal free energy allowance (see 3.3.2) as well as detailed stipulations on housing construction practices and accountability to residents (see 2.4.1).
We’re setting up a working group on the universal energy allowance idea (the “warm floor” we have put forward in numerous places and received a good response) and have started consulting some experts.
5. Local battles
At the same time we are continuing to work with individuals and tenants and residents organisations fighting over bills, poor housing, and dysfunctional heating systems — like the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations, Hillingdon’s Pembroke Park Residents Association, and residents of Pendleton, Salford.
6. Annual report
Almost forgot! Way back in history — in September! — we held our AGM and published our Annual Report . Please take a look if you’d like to see what we’ve been up to over the past year.
If there is any aspect of this work that you’d like to get involved in, please get in touch.
Our next monthly meeting will be on Wednesday 6 November.
Yet Again! Back to MHCLG for Safe Insulation and Cladding
On Thursday, 17 October 2019, Fuel Poverty Action (FPA) delivered anOpen Letter signed by over 80 organisations and MPs to the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, to demand safe cladding and proper insulation.
Grenfell MP Emma Dent Coad, along with residents affected by dangerous cladding, poor housing and missing insulation, helped deliver the letter, surrounded by a diverse and lively crowd of over 40 people including representatives of the NEU, All African Women’s Group, Biofuelwatch, the Global Women’s Strike, Sustainable Hackney, XR Youth, Lambeth Pensioners Action Group and the National Pensioners Convention. The date marked the anniversary of FPA’s previous Open Letter to Mr Jenrick’s predecessor, which was delivered on 17 October 2018.
The new letter notes that people in the UK, both social housing tenants and leaseholders, are still forced to live in buildings surrounded by the same type of flammable cladding that Grenfell Tower had. The Government has failed to meet the commitments it made a year ago in response to the previous letter.
The event was also timed to coincide with Extinction Rebellion’s October to enable climate activists to lend their support to demands – like insulation – that reduce carbon emissions while also making it possible for people on low incomes to keep warm and bring down bills. In response, there was a strong support and presence from Global Justice Rebellion.
Just 49% of homes in England had insulated walls in 2017, and UK government energy efficiency programmes have been slashed by over 90% over seven years. As a result, homes are responsible for one fifth of UK carbon emissions, and around 9,000 people die from the cold each year.
Signatories of the new letter include six national trade unions, as well as local branches, climate groups, tenants and residents associations, academics, councillors and nine MPs from three political parties: Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.
Shadow Cabinet member Rebecca Long-Bailey was among those who signed the letter. More than two years since the Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017 claimed 72 lives, many of Long-Bailey’s constituents are still forced to live in eight buildings that were clad under a PFI scheme in the same ACM cladding as Grenfell. Both the government and the housing association have refused to pay for its replacement. Pendleton resident Graeme Langton came down from Salford to deliver the Open Letter. Suspended by the landlord as TARA chair, after repeatedly challenging them, he said the government should get the flammable cladding off now, and argue about the money later.
The fight goes on for SCIN: Safe Cladding and Insulation – Now!
How we heat our homes is changing and must change. The changes are being discussed by the government and experts, but not often outside these circles. FPA believes it is essential for all of us in the public to be informed and to have a say about what will change and how. We welcome feedback on the “pressing questions” posed in this new pamphlet, which aims to open this public debate.
TOMORROW, as some of you may know, we are heading to Centrica, for a FUN demonstration starting at 11:00. We’ve chosen to target Centrica for a couple of reasons: but put simply:
Centrica fund fracking company Cuadrilla, to the tune of around $16Mn last year alone
Fracking funders Centrica own British Gas, who continue to raise their energy prices (£117 increase just announced this week), while cutting jobs, paying eye watering bonuses, and bullying people in their forced imposition of meters.
Our fun family friendly action will expose the links between finance, fracking and fuel poverty, with a fantastic performative fracking rig tour – complete with props, actors and a lot of laughs too. There will also be speeches from members of the Preston New Road site, Fuel Poverty Action & Reclaim the Power.
IF you are not on facebook, but would love to come – we will be meeting at 9AM at Paddington Station near the Upper Crust shop in the main station area. Look out for the woman in the colourful big puffa jacket – and, hopefully, the other people holding signs!
If you have any questions, please do ask – otherwise, we look forward to seeing you there!