No one should be cut off for lack of money to top up a meter!

After gas and electricity were privatised around 30 years ago, Ofgem was set up as a regulator to make sure that the private companies remained accountable to the public, to some degree.  Ofgem’s “standard licence conditions” impose quite a lot of obligations on these companies, and monitor customer service. They also have the power to cap prices, and have done so.

But the fact remains that many people just cannot afford their bills, and when you cannot pay you normally get put on a Prepayment Meter. Then you have to keep the meter topped up — it cuts off your power or your gas as soon as credit  runs out. And ofen you can’t get it back on until you can pay off “standing charges” that accumulate even when you’re using no heat or power. This plays havoc with people’s health, prospects, and relationships, and contributes to this country’s 10,000 deaths a year due to cold homes.

Recently, Ofgem has been consulting about what protections should be in place to prevent that happening. Ofgem refers to “self-disconnection” as if we were cutting ourselves off by choice.  But while the name is problematic, there are proposals for some good new license conditions.

Fuel Poverty Action has now responded to this consultation.  We hope this response will help establish some basic principles to prevent people going without the energy we need.  It will be published on Ofgem’s website, and in the meantime it can be found with our other consultation responses, here. Ofgem’s recommendations will be published later this year, but they will not be the last ones.  As the crisis of fuel poverty grows, stronger action will be needed.

Among other things, we press for suppliers to take it into account when people have exceptional needs for electric power, for instance because of district heating or heat pumps that do not perform as promised, or because the cladding and insulation have been removed from their tower blocks.

The Supply Licence Conditions & Guaranteed Standards of Performance run into hundreds of pages. Suppliers are fined sums large and small for serious and trivial breaches, of vast numbers of rules. Ofgem has powers to prohibit the ultimate sanction that suppliers wield to get bills paid: disconnection and so-called ‘self-disconnection’,  We think that is urgent for this coming winter and the hard times ahead.

Have a look here to see what we recommend.

Join us for the 2020 AGM of Fuel Poverty Action

Join us for the 2020 AGM of Fuel Poverty Action

Annual General Meeting – 6.45 for 7pm Thursday 10 September 2020

 RSVP – It is essential to let us know you’re coming, as we will then send you the link and details for zoom ([email protected]).

Following AGM business* (6.45) and a report of the year’s activities, this AGM will focus on plans for the coming winter and the hard times ahead 

bearing in mind how the pandemic, climate change, and increasing poverty and austerity are affecting first and hardest those who already have least: those of us who are Black or Minority Ethnic, low waged, unwaged, pensioners, disabled, children and young people, on benefits, migrants, or in poor housing.

We are delighted to provide a platform for three guest speakers:

Mónica Guiteras from APE, the Alliance against Energy Poverty, Catalonia  which has been exceptionally successful in holding energy suppliers to account will speak about how they have done it, using the combined power of people who can’t pay their bills, joining with climate and housing activists.

Graeme Langton, campaigning resident from a tower block in Salford which is just now having Grenfell-style cladding removed.  Residents are facing a winter without insulation and with heat pumps that they can’t afford to use.

Murat Kaya, Southwark leaseholder who recently won his case against the council which wanted him to pay for a new district heating boiler that never worked.

Discussion to include ‘How can we…?’:

  • Accelerate the home retrofits needed to keep us warm (and cool) enough, keep bills down, and slow the rush towards a transformed climate
  • Access the energy we need to stay healthy
  • Ensure that insulation and heating systems, in both new and old homes, are non-flammable, non-toxic, well-designed/installed/maintained, good for the climate, and suitable for our homes and for us as residents
  • Protect residents who are left without insulation following removal of cladding, or whose heating systems keep breaking down
  • Spread the word about what we’re entitled to and how to access help and insist on rights
  • Stop gas and electricity disconnections, district heating outages, and hungry prepayment meters. No more hungry children

At 8 pm, we invite you to get together with others who share your heating, housing, and affordability issues in smaller groups.  We will then come back together and finish by 8.30.

Fuel Poverty Action welcomes new members, and people who want to work with us in other ways.  Come along and raise your own issues, find out what’s happening, and consider how you might be part of it.  

If you want help in getting to grips with zoom, please let us know well in advance and we will help you.

* The AGM business section, for FPA’s voting members, will include a financial report and election of Directors. Members may appoint a proxy under section 324 of the Companies Act 2006 and article 22.

“What are we paying for?” Tribunal backs leaseholder on District Heating

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.

Cornerstone Barristers are at 020 7242 4986.

An Unusual Update – Spring 2020

Given the times we are living in, there’s a lot in this Update — and a lot to be done.

The sections are:

    1. The health emergency
    2. Ways forward from this crisis (our own initiatives and others’)
    3. Cladding and insulation
    4. District heating

The formatting on our website isn’t amazing – you can also read this in a google doc here

Changing times

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.
  • There’s lots more — this 3-page report is well worth reading!
  • 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. 

The Coronavirus fuel poverty crisis won’t be solved without government support

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 own petition.

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.

New petition on COVID-19 – please sign!

change org petition photo - covid 19

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’.

Fuel Poverty Action Autumn Update 2019

Outside MHCLG on 17 October 2019 to demand “Safe Cladding and Insulation Now” | Photo: Mark Kerrison

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.  

We also gave out hundreds of our popular little pink  “Pressing Questions” pamphlet, titled “Climate Justice  — at home — and saw people studying them all over the park. And Ruth did a 3 minute interview as part of the “Solutions Zone”, with safe, non-toxic insulation figuring prominently..

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 justicehere.– 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.  

We also welcome donations, affiliations, or help to raise money — FPA are still unfunded!

October 2019 Open Letter to MHCLG

Yet Again! Back to MHCLG for Safe Insulation and Cladding

On Thursday, 17 October 2019, Fuel Poverty Action (FPA) delivered an Open 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.

Outside MHCLG on 17 October 2019 to demand “Safe Cladding and Insulation Now” | Photo: Mark Kerrison

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.

Indigo Rumbelow of Global Justice Rebellion, with Geraldine Takundwa of All African Women’s Group and Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action | Photo: Mark Kerrison

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.

Emma Dent Coad MP presents Open Letter number 2 | Photo: Mark Kerrison

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. 

Graeme Langton from Pendleton, Salford, speaks before delivery of the Open Letter | Photo: Mark Kerrison

The fight goes on for SCIN: Safe Cladding and Insulation – Now!

This event received coverage in the Morning Star, Inside Housing and the Salford Star.

Open Letter on insulation and cladding delivered to MHCLG on Thursday, 17 October

Oct 2019 Open letter to MHCLG re Insulation and Cladding incl. list of signatories (06.11.2019)

Update: Ministry replies to October 2019 Open Letter on Cladding and Insulation

Response from MHCLG to Oct 2019 open letter

Making Green Come True

Examination of the London Plan 29 March 2019-

“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:

  1. a) they fail to protect residents on DH estates, locked into decades-long contracts with a monopoly heat supplier,  and
  2. 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.

Ruth London 30 April 2019