LAMBETH RESIDENTS FACE EVICTION WHEN WE CAN’T PAY ENERGY BILLS
Watch the BBC Morning Live report from 24th January 2024.
Is Lambeth council forcing tenants into homelessness by conflating energy costs with “rent”? Since April 2023 Lambeth council has threatened heat network users who can’t afford the 350% rise in their service charges with eviction. Both council tenants and leaseholders are affected by these increases, which can bring costs for heat and hot water alone to over £67 per week… in one case it totalled over £83!
We understand the falling price of gas may mean lower bills from this April, but they will still be too high for many of us to keep up with and we will already be in debt, struggling to catch up with our arrears. On top of this, for many of us, the heating and hot water system is constantly failing, leaving families and pensioners freezing cold.
For the majority of renters, rent and energy bills are separate. The rising cost of living and the energy crisis have put many into fuel debt but in most cases householders are able to make adjustments like changing providers, using less energy, making homes more energy-efficient or getting a prepayment meter. For Lambeth residents on heat networks, there is no such recourse available. We have no control over the provider, no thermostat in many cases, and no discussion over the way our heat and hot water is paid for.
The poorest residents who rely on financial assistance like housing benefit to meet increases in rent have found the service charges are not eligible for support, presenting them with no choice other than to sink into debt. Parents, especially single parents, and their children are suffering and going without necessities; vulnerable groups such as those with disabilities are being pressured to use their care allowance or PIP to pay the service charges. Those signposted to apply for discretionary housing and emergency support payments discovered that these payments – if obtained at all – did not cover the spiralling costs.
Rather than recognise the issue, with an urgency to separate massively hiked energy prices from normal service charges, the council is erroneously and egregiously counting fuel debt as unpaid rent, wilfully setting us on the road to risking our homes. It is service charge abuse to allow this situation to persist. The council even made the callous suggestion to Lambeth residents that we should just leave if unable to pay the hikes.
Even the disabled, the elderly, people with young children or other caring responsibilities are still receiving threatening letters. The council has not said what should happen if we are evicted. Where are we supposed to go? Will Lambeth rehouse us? And who will move into our vacated flats? Where will Lambeth find people eligible for council housing, who can afford these charges?
Residents from affected estates like Roupell Park, China Walk, Cotton Gardens, Lambeth Towers and Macintosh Court are joining up and working together to challenge this grave injustice. Lambeth Council should not and will not be allowed to ride roughshod over the mental, physical and financial health and wellbeing of its residents. There has to be an acknowledgment from Lambeth Council that it has been grossly unfair in its approach and its methods, with the cessation of eviction threats as a start.
- Stop the threats of eviction
Lambeth Council has been quietly harassing its most vulnerable residents by sending out notices of seeking possession based on tenants inability to keep up with 353% increase in heating & hot water bill. Some tenants have been told that the evictions won’t be pursued. But as the council refuses to confirm or deny this statement in writing, residents have been left in limbo: we cannot count on this and even the threat destroys our mental health. and presses people to pay what they can’t afford by cutting down on other essentials or going into expensive debt. At least one tenant has now had a red letter notice saying “Case in court for possession…”
- Stop saying ‘rent arrears’
Inability to pay heating bills should not be deemed as rent arrears. Renters not on heat networks don’t have their heating and hot water as part of their rent. When their energy costs increase, they aren’t threatened with eviction due to their gas or electric company charging more. Why should those on heat networks face eviction? Rent increases are capped, so if heat charges are part of rent how can they shoot up over 350%? And how can heat charges be counted as rent when we can’t receive Housing Benefit for them?
- Stop setting heat prices as if Lambeth weren’t going to get a discount on the gas purchased annually to burn for our heating
Like households with private boilers, heat suppliers are also entitled to government help to deal with the huge increase in gas prices. We understand Lambeth has applied for this discount but hasn’t yet received it. Yet our charges have been set as if the discount doesn’t exist. And then we’re being threatened with eviction if we can’t pay them!
- Stop fleecing tenants for your mistakes
In the financial year (FY) 22/23 Lambeth underpaid for communal heating – that is Lambeth officers’ administrative error. In the FY 23/24, Lambeth TRIPLED bills to cover Lambeth’s mistakes! They decided to recover their losses in ONE YEAR at a time when gas prices are at an all time high!
- Recover costs over 10 years not one year, or not at all
Lambeth should engage with tenant representatives and discuss how best to recover 22/23 underpayment due to their error and ease the burden on tenants
Reimburse tenants for the costs they have unfairly incurred and compensate for the stress and anxiety heaped onto them
Some have been forced into debt and others have gone without food and faced other hardships. There should be compensation for the anguish caused to residents by this nightmare.
- Immediate repairs and optimisation of inefficient heating systems
There is government money available for this. Residents are not responsible for dysfunctional and dilapidated infrastructure which often breaks down, and should not be picking up the tab for it.
- Metering will not fix our heat network problems
Some estates are set to have meters installed instead of a flat rate charge for all residents. This is not the priority for addressing heat network issues. It could enable us to save a little money if we “choose” to freeze instead of heating our homes, but not much – a large part of the bill will be a standing charge that you can’t avoid even if you go without heat and hot water entirely.
- Immediate repairs and refurbishment to draughty, poorly insulated and sometimes damp homes that cost a fortune to heat and can never be kept warm.
- Expansion of the use of solar panels, wind and other renewable options for reducing the use of expensive fossil-fuelled energy.
- Transparent billing information
Our landlord fails to provide us, its tenants, with a complete breakdown of costs. We need to know what we are paying for and why. To that end, external oversight of Lambeth’s heat charges must be sought to ensure calculations are correct and transparent.
- The council must compensate residents when communal heating/hot water services to a block break down – the rebate should duly be added to resident accounts after interruption to supply is noted. We should not have to scurry and hassle to obtain our just compensation.
- The council must also keep accurate records regarding the function of heating and hot water supplies. We ask that a transparent and straightforward protocol be adopted to compensate residents when communal heating/hot water services break down
- The heating systems must urgently be made fit for purpose so this does not happen again and again. It is adding further insult to injury when hot water/heating is not available and the council continues to charge exorbitantly without providing an actual service. There are several words for charging for a service without delivering it, including ‘theft’.
HOW THIS AFFECTS US
The following testimonies have been kindly and bravely shared by Lambeth residents impacted by the service charge hikes
Testimonial – AH, lone parent Wedgwood House
I am a single mother to a teenage boy as well as a carer for my elderly mother and in receipt of benefits.
My rent is paid by housing benefit, so my arrears are solely on service charges.
I have spoken to the Lambeth rents team on countless occasions. I even attended a meeting with them to discuss this issue. We were told that Lambeth was trying to recoup two years worth of deficit, which is why there was such an increase in these charges. However if we were to pay what we could and not be negligent then we did not have to worry too much because they understood how these charges impacted on low income households. But so far I have received two threatening letters from Lambeth seeking repossession/action to take me to court.
This has majorly impacted on my physical and psychological well-being. I worry this is going to affect my son’s GCSEs because he worries that I’m not eating/sleeping. I have also sought out medical help from my GP.
I’m really at a crossroads on what to do next. It’s a spiral of an accumulation of arrears. No matter what I pay, my arrears still go up.
Living under the umbrella of the threat of homelessness is not easy…
Testimonial – Lone parent, Roupell Park Estate, Lambeth
I am a lone parent of a little boy. I live on Roupell Park estate, living here since 2016. I can’t work that much as I am a sole carer of my son. I can’t make enough money.
When I saw the increase I thought if I update with the housing benefit department they would increase the benefit payment. A few months later in June, I received a letter saying that I was in arrears for my rent, around £600. I didn’t have that kind of money to pay it off. I’ve had to borrow money from friends. I still owe them.
It’s been a few months of a proper depression. I didn’t even contact Lambeth Talking Therapies (IAPT) because I know if I am not suicidal or anything for them to consider risk of serious harm, then I wasn’t going to get an appointment
My son suffered seeing me in that state. He is eight years old and he is already realising that we don’t have money because I’ve had to stop buying certain things and can’t afford his after-school clubs anymore.
I am in receipt of working tax credit, yet we spend everything on bills and food and there is nothing else left. I think those charges are just too much. I live in my flat alone with my son. We are not using that much heating and hot water. In October I stayed at my friend’s house in Brixton, he’s got separate meters just for his flat, and using hot water and heating for ten days nonstop, we only paid about (I checked the meters) £17 for ten days. And we (heating network users) pay £50 weekly, seven days.
I’ve never been in that situation in my life, that I have to really calculate what I’m buying to eat. Before it was things like buying things for my son, going out and eating out. I could forget about that. But even groceries?
I know that lots of other people are affected as well, that’s what my housing officer told me, that he knows there are many people in the same situation on the estate. Nobody consulted us personally, nobody warned us. It just came like that and nobody conceded that most of us, especially a single parent household, don’t use that much energy and we shouldn’t be charged so much.
Testimonial – Lone parent, Wedgwood House
When I received my rent increase letter from the council I was shocked and very anxious. I couldn’t believe that they were putting up the heating, alone by £300 – which works out 306% in percentages. I couldn’t understand how this has been worked out.
I get help from universal credit as my wage isn’t enough per month, but universal credit does not help towards your heating bills.
Looking at my outgoings the only possible place to cut down from is food. I’m no longer able to buy fresh produce. I skip breakfast everyday and on occasions lunch too. I provide my son with all three meals a day, I come after him. The fact that we’re in a cost of living crisis, food has also risen ridiculously.
I often walk to work, to try and save on travel, which with my varicose veins and an ongoing foot problem, really isn’t ideal for my health. I can no longer buy any new clothes/toys; anything we wear is very much second-hand, from friends or family.
I spoke with a gentleman (councillor/council officer?) with a few other residents at the beginning of April 2023. He took our details and said he would get our questions answered. He emailed me on 19/04/2023 to inform me that he was still looking into our concerns but sadly I’m still yet to hear anything from him.
I’m now stuck in a cycle of having to regularly use my credit card for food purchases as I simply don’t have enough money to last me a month as my outgoings are more than my income.
Testimonial – Parent of child with disabilities, Roupell Park Estate, Lambeth.
I have lived in Lambeth at the same address for 20 odd years..
When I first read the letter I did not sleep very well at all because it was so shocking. At the time that I read the £50 increase I thought it was somehow me misreading it. I thought it was £50 extra a month. It wasn’t until I reread the letter that I then found out that it was a weekly charge – an extra £200-£250 a month.
My days, that was like a nail in the coffin for me. I’ve had to reduce how much food shopping I buy and how often I shop. For the first time ever, I had to be watching every penny that I spent. I mean it was very difficult not being able to afford buying clothes for the kids. You know, not being able to – and I work – to do just normal things. Being a Christian, my faith has really helped me through it. I found ways to cut back on every single thing but after paying the bills there’s hardly anything left.
My son has ADHD so I was able to apply for the disability living allowance. It took about five months to come through. It wasn’t until that came through that life got a little bit better and more bearable. Now I’m able to at least buy the children some clothes, buy just a little bit more food…
Testimonial – Lone parent Roupell Park
I am a council tenant and single parent with a primary school age child. We have
been informed at very short notice that our service charge has increased over 300%. It is four times what it was in March and I can’t keep up.
In some ways it would be preferable if the only thing being threatened is being cut off but if I can’t pay this I think the plan is for me and my child to be evicted.
Overnight, I have gone into severe rent arrears and there seems to be no recourse to
appeal. Low income tenants cannot get help e.g. from housing benefit because service charge is treated differently to rent burden. What on earth can I do? I have cut back to almost nothing but there is a limit to what you can cut back with a child without causing serious neglect of their needs. What help is there for us?
Testimonial – Sarah Bone, lone parent, Wedgwood House
I have been thinking about asking my GP to refer me to start using food banks, as soon I won’t be able to keep up with these payments… I would really like Lambeth to reconsider how they think what they are charging us for heating alone is acceptable and justifiable.
The hot water system is shocking, my hot water in the kitchen goes on and off constantly every time I wash up, I have to wait every so often for the hot to become hot again to finish washing a sink’s worth of dishes.
The bath I have to keep an eye on as this goes from hot to lukewarm constantly and I end up with a cold bath even when just using the hot tap to make one.
Testimonial – Tamara Lyn-Grant, mother of three, Wedgwood House
I have always strived to fulfil my responsibility of paying rent on time. However, this latest increase has forced me to reassess my already constrained budget, leaving me with limited resources to cover essential expenses such as utilities, groceries, and other necessities especially with three children to feed and clothe.
The ripple effect of this financial distress has impacted every aspect of my life, causing a considerable amount of emotional dis and uncertainty about the future.
PLEASE SUPPORT US
- Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action says:
It’s been a hard year for everyone, with energy bills at an all time high, but Lambeth’s increased charges are even worse. And it is not normal for anyone, even on other heat networks, to be threatened with eviction when they can’t pay heat bills. What are they supposed to do, when the charges are simply unpayable? It’s almost unbelievable that a council like Lambeth could do this to its residents. The tenants and leaseholders can only fight to end this cruel injustice.
Heat networks can be greener and more affordable than gas boilers. They are not supposed to be a disaster like this. We fully support the Lambeth tenants and we hope everyone who cares about warm, safe, affordable and sustainable housing will support them too, including Lambeth officers and councillors!
- London Tenants Federation says:
Lambeth, like all London councils, finds itself in a position not of its choosing; having to deal with an energy crisis that is crippling. To decide to pass on the iniquitous nature of district heating charges, to the most vulnerable and least able to pay in many instances, is atrocious. Given the fact that the housing Ombudsman has taken special interest in the level of complaints and the service provided by Lambeth, it seems folly for the council to proceed in the callous and high-handed manner they have taken to date.
LTF supports the actions taken by Lambeth tenants and urges the council to meet the demands of the tenants, caught in the crosshairs of an under-regulated part of the energy sector and beholden to the council/industry monopoly for their energy supply. Tenants aren’t able to choose who supplies them with energy, that is a decision Lambeth makes. Mistakes made are not tenants’ mistakes, they are Lambeth council mistakes.
As a social landlord Lambeth should not be forcing tenants to choose between a warm home, food or homelessness and the mental distress that ensues.
- A debt adviser for a local independent advice centre says:
I have seen a vast number of Lambeth tenants affected by the 353% increase in ineligible service charges since April 2023. This is a very serious issue with no obvious remedy; tenants are unable to claim a discretionary housing payment for the increase as a DHP does not cover ‘ineligible service charges’. I and my colleagues work hard to make sure that tenants are getting any benefits they are entitled to, and any discounts/income maximisation. However the rise in service charges is beyond anything I have ever seen before, and it is not realistic for any of the tenants I have seen to be able to pay for the increase, which in some cases is as much as £65 a week. I am concerned that people are being pushed into unmanageable debt and poverty by the enormous increase, and feel powerless to help. It is certainly the most challenging issue I have seen clients face in my six years as a debt adviser here.
SOME BACKGROUND ON HEAT NETWORKS
Heat networks – often loosely referred to as “district heating” – are like central heating for a whole block of flats, a whole estate and sometimes a whole area. Heat is produced centrally and distributed as hot water, through pipes.
Heat networks are promoted by the government as “green” because they can be converted to use heat pumps instead of expensive gas. They can work well. But when they work badly they cost the earth, using even more gas than individual boilers.
Residents are trapped in a monopoly without legal protections or rights and are suffering a huge injustice compared to people with other kinds of heating provision.
- We cannot switch to another heating system or another supplier and cannot even cut down our costs by not using heat or hot water.
- Except for metering and billing there are no regulations governing this industry. Though legislation is now pending it is likely to take years to come into force.
- There are no price caps for residents. The government’s energy support plan in 2022 covered almost all households except those on communal heating (heat networks), which they deemed to be commercial businesses. In 2023 the government accepted we should also benefit from government discounts like other households. But the discounts have to be applied for and they go to the heat provider. Experience in Lambeth shows that the end user may get no help when it is needed.
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