Partial victories for warmth and safety in a Trafford Housing Trust tower block

 
Stretford House district heating price reduction poster
A poster informing residents when their heating price went down. Stretford House, Trafford, resident Phil Murphy gives the background to this, below. In relation to the poster he writes: “I posted it on a notice board in the foyer when we got news of the price drop (notification by letter from the trust didn’t arrive for a while after this point, it was the coldest time of year and I was aware many people were rationing their heating). Unfortunately THT took it down so many residents remained unaware of the new lower price for some time. I was ‘only’ a tenant (not Chair of the TRA) by this time, this was the excuse they used to prevent me circulating this information to my neighbours in the block who I knew were vulnerable to the cold and struggling to pay their bills so rationing their heating.”

Tenants and residents can take heart from what has been won so far at Stretford House in Trafford.  In 2010, as part of a refurbishment, a new communal heating system was installed (aka “district heating”) that in this case cost much more, and was not capable of keeping the flats warm.  The works to install the new system also compromised the building’s fire safety. Action by the former Chair of the TRA has now brought major improvements on both those fronts, although there is a long way to go.  Heating tariffs have been halved.
The following account is by Stretford House resident and former Tenants and Residents Association chair Phil Murphy, who is a former Fire Safety Officer with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS).

* * * *

It was more than eight years ago when Trafford Housing Trust carried out a major refurb at Stretford House, a 23 storey single staircase property.
The works planned initially included:

  • New windows – the existing being past their life span were, in some cases, leaking
  • Insulating the building with an external rainscreen cladding system
  • New flat entrance doors and fire doors through the common areas
  • New bathrooms
  • New kitchens
  • New communal heating & hot water system

The new district heating system cost doubled twice and it left us cold
Up until that time every flat had a warm air system fed through their own gas meter. It wasn’t expensive and we could all switch suppliers as we paid our own gas bills.   The new system, brought into our block and other THT tower blocks, has centralised boilers which feed hot water to heat exchangers in each flat. Tenants had no choice, we had to accept this, although leaseholders could opt out and some did hang onto their old warm air systems.
When the new system was to be brought in, they told us it would halve what we had to pay for heating and hot water.  That is not how it worked out. .
When the heat output of the new heating system was specified it was expected that it would be working in flats with new insulation and new windows. Following completion of all of the works except the windows and cladding, the programme was discontinued. Not only did this leave residents with a system operating without the expected insulation improvements, but the system was also not functioning correctly for many flats. It took three years to get the heating system working correctly.  It required the installation of new major pumps (indicating an incorrect specification in the first instance), new filters, and the whole system needed to be flushed out to remove debris from inside the system.
Many of the complaints over the three year period were not formally logged as complaints. At one point there were so many issues arising that the trust’s heating manager was in the foyer noting issues by hand, these issues were never logged as repairs. This means the trust’s published repairs and complaints for this period remain wildly inaccurate and don’t not reflect  the nightmare tenants in Stretford House were enduring. For us, the fight was draining.
During that period the system wasn’t operating as it should. It struggled to heat flats that were supposed to have improved windows and insulation. This resulted in some tenants having their heating on permanently and yet reporting that their flats never reached an acceptable temperature. Having the heating on for extended periods saw tenants receiving vastly increased energy bills.
Meanwhile the energy charges set by the trust ignored the issues, and having initially priced the unit cost at 2p/kwh, providing the energy savings that was promised to tenants before they were forced to accept the new system, the trust now had a monopoly on this energy (residents are unable to switch suppliers) and swiftly doubled the cost to 4p/kwh without even bothering to inform residents. Falling gas prices meant that residents were now paying significantly above the average consumer rate being charged by the  big six domestic energy suppliers. The following year they doubled it again to 8p/kwh.
Residents now had a heating and hot water system that didn’t work, they were without the planned efficiency savings of new windows and insulation, and were paying in excess of double that of their neighbours in houses in the surrounding streets.   I exhausted THT’s formal complaints procedure to no avail, twice. The saga began before I spent a year as Chair of the residents association and dragged on after that period
Fire safety
In addition, in installing the system, the contractors had totally trashed the compartmentation that was supposed to protect us from the spread of fire. There were holes in every flat, and between flats, that fire and smoke could come through.
In addition, some residents became so concerned about bills that they were relying entirely on the small fan heaters that the caretaker was distributing free of charge in acknowledgement of the issues. Even though this presents a fire risk residents were not advised of the increased risks.
What we did
As it happens, I am a former fire fighter and fire safety officer, and I was painfully aware of the danger. Inspired by the work of Stuart Hodkinson and Fuel Poverty Action, I wrote to my MP Kate Green detailing my concerns surrounding the adequacy of fire risk assessments, especially compartmentation that had been penetrated throughout the block with the installation of the new heating systems’ pipework, and the energy prices being forced on residents by the energy-monopoly landlords.
Having experienced the complaints procedure I took a different route and used my fire engineering knowledge to compose a fourteen page forensic analysis of the fire safety problems I suspected might exist. I gave it to a GMFRS Fire Safety Officer  who demanded immediate improvements. It turned out that everything in the report was correct. This was after Grenfell.
Results!
Fire safety improved:  The day after I submitted my 14 page report there were 20 vans (I have pictures) on the car park and a huge team of experts started working their way through the block.  Every flat, every riser, every common area had serious compartmentation problems. It took them ten months of working every day (I estimate a cost around £1 million) to put it right. An example of what they had to do: https://youtu.be/dYD1taS9ocM
Heating price halved: At the start of this year the independent expert concluded that the price could not be justified. The price was dropped from 8p/kwh to 3.9p/kwh and all residents received a refund amounting to the unnecessary charge they paid for the last 12 months (in most cases this ranged between £200 and £350).
However residents had been paying the super-charged energy rate for five years. While they await to see whether they’ll receive the full refund to which they are entitled, Trafford Housing Trust have brought in another independent consultant, presumably in an attempt to justify charging residents far in excess of what the trust are paying for the energy. Residents are wondering whether they’ll get the money they are owed, whether other tenants across the trust have also received a refund to which they are entitled, and whether they’ll have to switch to fan heaters again that carry an increased fire risk and are expensive to run but are at least easily controlled to limit their energy bills.

Burning Gas at Drax Power Station – Voice your Objections

Drax power station has applied to the Planning Inspectorate for permission to replace its two remaining coal-fired units with much larger ones burning fossil (natural) gas. You can read the full response we’ve submitted to this here.

If you agree that we should not allow Drax to increase carbon emissions by burning gas and wood biomass, you can help stop Drax’s proposed gas development by sending an objection to the Planning Inspectorate.
The deadline for responses is Wednesday the 29th of August at 11.59pm.
Further information and a model submission, which you can also sign on to, is at http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2018/drax-gas-alert/

 
 

Summer report – and object to Drax power station proposals!

Greetings!
As some things slow down for the summer, we wanted to share a brief update, and a “hold the date” for Fuel Poverty Action’s coming AGM, which is scheduled for 13 September.
Help stop Drax:
Before that, however, can we draw your attention to the request for objections to Drax power station’s plans to create the UK’s largest gas-fired plant to date, at a time when fossil fuels must urgently be phased out.  Biofuelwatch asked us to spread the word on this. This year’s extreme temperatures are now making summer another dangerous season, with heat waves as lethal as cold.  There is also the danger of air conditioning – for those who can afford it – further increasing carbon emissions and causing a vicious spiral of climate change, cost, and deaths.  Biofuelwatch’s tweets and a facebook post for sharing are below.  They also have a model response to the consultation (deadline 29 August), and we have a draft ourselves if you’d like to see it.
 
FPA Update:
It’s been a very busy few months, pressing for

  • an effective cap on energy prices (See e.g. here,  here (with DPAC) and on Victoria Derbyshire Show here),
  • a fairer deal for people with district or communal heating systems, (see eg here and here),
  • better insulation where low and unenforced building standards have left residents in the cold (see here and here),
  • relief for people in hard to heat rural homes with oil-fired heating (here and here), this has helped change government policy
  • non-profit, democratically controlled municipal energy (eg here and here),

 
and at the same time, we have

  • stood up for lots of individuals and residents’ groups in battles with their energy or heat suppliers, and landlords, private or social.
  • republished our MiniGuide to energy customers rights (now expanded with information on rights in relation to landlords),
  • responded to several GLA and other consultations on housing policies and on fuel poverty,
  • spoke at and participated in Housing Justice conference in Liverpool, forming a new coalition
  • combined forces with organisations of pensioners, asylum seekers, and people with disabilities, and been active participants in the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, the Radical Housing Network, the movement to divest from fossil fuels, the  Right to Energy coalition, aiming to eliminate energy poverty in Europe, and more.

Safe Cladding and Insulation Now!
For the last six months, however, the lion’s share of our energy has gone into starting the SCIN campaign for Safe Cladding and Insulation Now, following the appalling loss of life at Grenfell Tower.   If you haven’t been seeing our mailings about this, have a quick skim of the website front page and News, and see more under “Cladding and Insulation” tab – including the Open Letter to the Secretary of State (for organisations, politicians, etc to sign), ways to affiliate, personal testimonies from people suffering cold or in fire-risk buildings, and model motions for trade unions and political parties.  In the last few weeks we’ve been working with Grenfell United to back up residents of an estate in Salford which has the same cladding and insulation as Grenfell. We expect to deliver the Open Letter in October, with a demonstration/event.
Please see what you can do – for the sake of both the people who must go to sleep in buildings that could go up in flames, and the people who may end up freezing next winter, as many did last year, when cladding has been removed and not replaced.   The dangerous state of UK homes, old and new, is a national disgrace and an emergency. No more residents should pay for this with their health or with their lives.
In fact, we welcome help of all sorts, from joining our core team to spreading the word on social media or helping on a one-off basis, eg organising events, or going door to door on housing estates. Just get in touch and let us know, or come along to our AGM, we’ll be very glad to meet you!
Meanwhile, FPA still has no funding!  We rely on voluntary labour (lots!) but also on the generosity and determination of our friends.  A “donate” button can be found on our website here.  We have made time to do some funding applications.  Offers of fundraising events are also very welcome, and a good way of spreading the word, as well — we’d be glad to help.
* * *
On Drax, please share:
https://twitter.com/biofuelwatch/status/1021706758107156480
https://www.facebook.com/Biofuelwatch/posts/2149840821754870
Hope to see you on 13 September – or to hear from you, before!

FPA response to new proposals for ECO scheme

The government published proposals for the ECO (Energy Company Obligation) scheme due to come to force in October 2018. FPA wrote with our concerns that the proposals, by excluding oil, risk the lives of rural residents. We also prompted a personal response from an oil customer in a rural home with no other realistic way to heat his family’s home.  In August 2018 we learned that in a surprise change from their original consultation, BEIS have announced that they will continue to allow new oil boilers to be installed under ECO3  under the ‘Broken Boiler Cap’ (of 35,000 systems per year equivalent). BEIS expects that new oil boilers will be delivered mostly in rural areas. In addition, a 400% uplift will be available to provide support for the replacement of broken boilers (including oil-fired boilers) under the cap to low income, “vulnerable” and fuel poor households.
Read our letter to Claire Perry, the Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth below:
Letter to BEIS on Oil and Fuel Poverty

Fuel Poverty Action Meeting 29th February (tomorrow!)

ice and fire logo
Tomorrow is FPA’s next regular monthly meeting. We’ll be focussing on a presentation of some research that we’ve done on fire safety and building regulations – what’s happened post Grenfell and what the law states. We’ve been trying to find out who is responsible and what can we do about it?
We’ll have a discussion about this, as well as some regular meeting points, including an update on what’s happening around London with district heating.
The meeting is at 7pm, at Crossroads Women’s centre, 25 Wolsey Mews, Kentish Town, NW5 2DX. Do come along!
 

Housing needs to be both safe and warm! Join our public meeting to make this a reality.

Housing Safety Post Grenfell Meeting Image
Book your free tickets on Eventbrite by clicking this link.
Following the Grenfell atrocity, many high-rise blocks have had their cladding and insulation removed, leaving thousands exposed to illness and death from cold. Last winter over 11,000 people died from cold homes. Like deaths from fire due to shoddy building standards and unaccountable public and private landlords, deaths from cold in this rich country are a shocking and unacceptable tragedy. Residents on many housing estates, new and old, are fighting for insulation – but it has to be safe!
At the same time more and more housing estates are being fitted with district heating networks. Communal heating could save both money and carbon but in practice it is unregulated and often done badly, leaving many residents cold and out of pocket. Also, without thorough inspection, pipes can be left with gaps around them that provide thoroughfares for fire and smoke.
This meeting will be a great opportunity to discuss what residents are demanding and can demand, and exchange ideas and experiences with housing activists, experts on insulation, construction and maintenance, and political decision-makers.
The meeting will be on 18th January, 18.30-21.30 at Crossroads Women’s Centre, 25 Wolsey Mews, NW5 2DX. The venue is wheelchair accessible.
Confirmed speakers include:
***Ishmael Francis-Murray, lifelong Lancaster West resident. Check out his documentary, Failed by the State (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tFPCUgjbfA).
***Cllr Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, and author of ‘After Grenfell: Housing and Inequality in Kensington and Chelsea, the most unequal borough in Britain’.
***Sian Berry, Green Camden councillor and London Assembly Member. As Mayoral candidate, Sian proposed free insulation for all homes.

***An architect from Concrete Action, an independent network of architecture professionals.

Book your free tickets on Eventbrite by clicking this link.