Safe Cladding & Insulation Now Update November 2020

Apologies for the length of this update but there is a lot happening.  For things you can take part in or take action on please see Building Safety? , Making Green Come True , Cladding finally off — but winter is coming! , and, at the end, Dictating to the Estate”.

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Building Safety?

We want first to draw your attention to an important new initiative by residents groups and campaigners, including Grenfell United, the London Tenants Federation, UK Cladding Action Group and Tower Blocks UK, with the support of the University of Leeds, aiming to influence the government’s proposed reforms to high-rise building and fire safety regulation in the wake of the Grenfell disaster..  The Building Safety Bill is currently in draft form and has just been through a pre-legislative inquiry held by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, while the Fire Safety Bill will soon reach the Report Stage in the House of Lords. Related to both are proposed fire safety reforms that have recently been consulted on. There are some encouraging aspects of this reform package, not least the more stringent regulatory enforcement system for high-rise residential buildings under a new Building Safety Regulator with tougher penalties for non-compliance. However, there are many flaws with the Building Safety Bill and the fire safety reforms being laid before parliament:

  1. The proposed scope of the Building Safety Bill excludes buildings under 18 metres as well as care homes, prisons, detention centres, hospitals, hospices, hotels, hostels, and guest houses despite growing evidence of the fire and structural dangers of such buildings.
  1. Original proposals for a very strong enforcement system that would prevent new buildings from being occupied unless compliant and allow citizens the right to bring private legal claims for a breach of building regulations have been inexplicably dropped.
  1. The Draft Building Safety Bill is very vague on how existing buildings will be integrated into the new system
  1. Despite promising to put residents at the heart of the new system, there are hardly any new rights for residents but a whole load of responsibilities including the requirement that leaseholders will be financially liable for an uncapped Building Safety Charge to pay for safety measures
  2. The rights of residents to evacuate in the event of a fire are still being ignored: the government is actively undermining the Grenfell Inquiry recommendations to ensure that high-rise buildings are fitted with fire detection and evacuation systems, and that all landlords prepare Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) to help vulnerable and disabled people and anyone else whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.

While consultations have closed (see FPA’s submission on the FSO, based on a campaign template, here) it is still possible to influence the Building Safety Bill and the fire safety reforms — and every closed loophole could save lives. The residents’ initiative will shortly be preparing model letters for people to write to their local MP and councillors to encourage them to put pressure on Ministers and relevant parliamentarians. SCIN will update supporters in due course.

If you are interested in getting involved, please get in touch with Phil Murphy – [email protected]

Making Green Come True — 5 December 2020

We warmly invite you to our half-day online conference, titled Making Green Come True where the proposals now before Parliament will be on the agenda, along with other issues related to both cladding and insulation.  The conference will give residents an opportunity to highlight the gap between green promises and reality, share experience, build alliances, and add to pressure for accountability in housing.  Beyond the critical issue of flammability it is crucial to make sure that both cladding and insulation are non-toxic, and that they do their job — in many cases inappropriate retrofits have actually left homes colder and damper than before.  Plus, the materials they use may be carbon-intensive to extract, produce, and transport, cutting into carbon saving.

There will be a second Making Green Come True event in the new year, focusing on heating.  In both sessions  will be a mixture of people with direct personal experience and people like architects and renovation specialists who have other kinds of expertise. Campaigners on housing, safety, pensioners’ issues, energy and the climate are welcome, as are trade unionists.

Please register via the link on our website.

Cladding finally off — but winter is coming!

Meanwhile, the fight goes on to get flammable cladding of all sorts off of buildings of all heights.  The residents of nine Pendleton Together tower blocks in Salford, have finally had ACM cladding removed from blocks which are a mirror image of Grenfell Tower, and have all the same fire risks too.  After three years of sleepless nights it is a huge relief.  But residents have had no information on when the cladding will be replaced.  And after all this time, the cladding has been removed as we go into winter — and a winter of Covid-19.

Here, as elsewhere, FPA have been raising the issue of how people can keep warm without cladding or insulation.  The landlord’s response has been an offer of £25 per month — or 83p per day — for additional heating costs.  Experience of other blocks shows that when insulation comes off many people cannot keep warm even if they keep the heating on 24/7 — and who can afford to do that?

In the Pendleton Together flats,  there are additional problems with many people’s heating systems — they have NIBE heat pumps which have not functioned properly for years. (we are trying again now to get action on this).  Some people say they just never put their heating on.  But what will that be like, when the building is open to the elements?  Flats on high floors are badly exposed to wind.  And other such tower blocks have found that, after cladding removal, there is not only condensation but rain penetration as well.

Please tweet in support of Pendleton residents: “@SalfordCouncil and @salford_mayor,  how long are the Pendleton high rise blocks going to be without insulation? It’s getting really cold.”  See the Salford Star article!

If you know of other blocks where people have been offered — or NOT offered — compensation for extra heating costs, please get in touch — comparing what is happening in different estates and areas can be crucial to improving what people get.

Tens of thousands still in danger

The government’s Building Safety Programme Monthly Data Release looks only at high rise buildings over 18 metres (6 storeys) high, with Grenfell-style ACM cladding.  The records for 30 September 2020 show 456 such buildings identified as unlikely to meet Building Regulations.: The buildings are

  • 155 social sector residential,
  • 207 Private sector residential,
  • 54 Student accommodation blocks
  • 30 Hotels  and
  • 10 Publicly owned buildings.

The startling thing is that these figures are virtually identical with the statistics for September 2019 (An exception is where, in the private sector, more buildings have been identified as unsafe.)  Not only has there been no progress during the pandemic — there was hardly any before that, either.  In a hard-hitting report The parliamentary Communities and Local Government Select Committee suggest “Any residential building where works have not commenced by December 2020 should be subject to a Compulsory Purchase Order”. 

All of these figures are dwarfed by the huge numbers of homes which still have other combustible materials on their external walls, and homes which are in buildings of under 18 metres high.  The same parliamentary Committee says says many of these buildings also have further issues like inadequate fire breaks (34%), and combustible or missing insulation (30%).

Written evidence submitted by the National Fire Chiefs Council [CPR 017], May 2020.notes that: 

“Several of the worst recent fires in residential blocks have taken place in buildings under 18 metres, such as at the Cube student residence in Bolton. There are estimated to be 100,000 buildings between 11 and 18 meters high.”  For a  personal account of one such fire see here.

On 11 March 2020 the Chancellor announced in the Budget a £1 billion Building Safety Fund  for the removal and replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding systems in buildings over 18M.. Building owners and managers are struggling to apply for the Building Safety Fund before its tight December deadline, sometimes impeded by the developers.  In New Festival Quarter, Tower Hamlets, for instance, the developer Bellway undertook their own survey and (according to the witness report) found missing cavity barriers, combustible insulation and other issues, as well as the ACM cladding now being removed.  But Bellway are currently refusing to share their findings with residents – including information important for the funding application

Importantly, a study has highlighted how “Three major house builders have made combined profits of £5.2bn since the Grenfell Tower fire despite leaseholders in properties they developed facing life-changing bills for fire safety repairs”

Residents’ mental health is still in pieces from living in flammable buildings, and many are also paying a high price financially, e.g. for 24-hour fire watch services.  The UK Cladding Action Group, with backing from Inside Housing and from Grenfell United, have been working hard to highlight the cost to leaseholders.  .

Sadly, the problem is far from solved for social housing tenants, either, and the Parliamentary Committee raised doubts over whether their landlords would have access to the new the new Building Safety Fund.  Graeme Langton, a social housing tenant in Salford says,

“I find myself being called on day in and day out to give emotional support to members of my community currently at their wits end. We have seen a vast increase in mental health self referrals – some have been admitted several times during lockdown.

Of course Covid 19 has affected everyone across the country… but here in inner-city Salford many feel that they are not just suffering but are being ignored and left in limbo due to the fiasco led by Salford City Council / Together Housing / and Pendleton Together. Only now after several years of fighting to get the Grenfell style cladding off, is it being removed. But no works plan to replace the cladding and no confirmation as to the quality or standard of what this new material might be.”

A slew of heavyweight organisations have thrown their weight behind the fight, with the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign relaunched in September 2020.  But the long and the short of it is that the government has put £1.6bn into removal work but has said this will be the limit of the funding it provides. The full cost of remediating affected buildings around England is estimated at £15bn.  The new  legislation in the pipeline now is primarily targeted at new builds, not existing buildings. Much will depend on the campaign we flagged up at the start of this Update.

No Justice in Sight

While the fight goes on to prevent more loss of life, Grenfell Tower survivors and their community are battling for justice for those whose lives were ended or turned upside down on 14 June 2017.  In the long-delayed public inquiry they have repeatedly been knocked back by being excluded from the room, by the choice of panellists — and months of an empty chair, and by the decision that oral evidence cannot be used in the prosecution of any individual. The fear of seeing those responsible walk away free is very real.

The evidence coming out of the inquiry is damning and heartbreaking. Among much else, it has heard

(Yet we are a very long way from seeing anyone in prison for these decisions.  And meanwhile, the same practices continue all over the country, including stone-walling and demonising residents who dare to complain.

“Dictating to the Estate”

Very much to the point, then, we’re glad to pass on this message from the team now working on a dynamic expose of what really happened at Grenfell:

“Dictating to the Estate” is a documentary play about events leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire. It uses blog posts, emails and council records to tell the story of the refurbishment of the tower and residents’ attempts to hold the council to account. At the same time, it places these events in the wider context of austerity, social cleansing and deregulation.

Following on from the successful public readings we did last year, the new production will have a new cast and an extensively rewritten script, incorporating information that is currently coming out of the Inquiry. Although it has been delayed a number of times by the pandemic, it will now be coming on stage in November 2021 at the Maxilla Social Club in North Kensington, just a few minutes’ walk from Grenfell Tower. We will also be recording and releasing a free digital performance that people can watch online. 

The production is working in partnership with Fuel Poverty Action’s Safe Cladding Now campaign, and will include public talks on issues of fire safety in its satellite events. 

We currently have a crowdfunding campaign underway to raise the remaining £13,000 we need to meet our budget. We understand these are particularly difficult times, but any contributions would be greatly appreciated. You can donate to the campaign here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/dictating-to-the-estate/x/10245226#/

If you can’t contribute financially, you can still support us by following the production on social media, sharing our posts, and spreading the word. Our handles are:

Twitter: @dtteproduction

Facebook: @grenfelldocumentary 

Left out in the cold – no protection for hundreds of thousands if their heating fails this winter

FPA have been pressing for months behind the scenes to get protection for people on District Heating networks, in case their heat and hot water fail during the pandemic this winter.  We’ve now written to the energy minister about this — see the letter and our press release below, and coverage in Utility Week.  We understand the government is urging heat suppliers to act on this.  Now this protection should be written into a Heat industry agreement.  

Press Release 3 November 2020

Fuel Poverty Action has written to the energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng, asking him to intervene to rescue people in danger of cold this winter (see here to read the letter).  Most people in “District Heating” systems, increasingly common in UK housing developments (1), are left out of national agreements covering gas and electricity customers during Covid-19. They have no protection if they cannot afford to heat their homes in the pandemic.  They will also be unprotected if their communal heating system fails, which can be frequent for some poorer performing networks.

The government has shown a strong commitment to boosting district heating over the coming decade,  and we are asking the minister to step in, before the weather turns worse, to ensure that consumers on such  heat networks have the same levels of protection as households on conventional gas and power supply.

Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action said,

“This winter, the dangers are worse than ever.  Many people are working at home, many have lost their income.  Even in a normal year, it can be too expensive  to plug in an electric heater or to use an immersion heater for hot water.  The cost of running electric heaters is so high that many people cannot put them on for even an hour.  Due to the pandemic they cannot shower in a local gym, spend an afternoon in a library keeping warm, or take the children to anywhere warm.  Whatever their age, or their state of health or illness, they will be trapped in a freezing home without any source of warmth, and unable even to wash their hands in warm water. The risks are obvious, and include a risk to life.”

Pat Edmonds, from Wydham and Combre Tenants and Residents Association in Southwark had this question for the council in March 2020:

“One question I get asked almost daily from tenants/residents of Wyndham & Comber Estate is, “is enough work being done to safeguard the district heating?“  It failed last weekend.  Everyone was freezing.  Lots of people have young children who they now cannot take out to their grandparents for warmth and most of whom cannot afford the cost of putting on electric fires.  Many seniors are having to augment their electricity bills by paying extra money.”

Gas and electricity customers are governed by a series of protections, which currently include measures — usually loans — to prevent people being cut off in the pandemic (2).   They are also entitled to compensation for any outage over 24 hours, and vulnerable gas customers must be given an alternative means of cooking and heating.  But except for a small minority of schemes which are covered by the Heat Trust or the Heat Networks Industry Council (3), there is no equivalent for most people on heat networks.

David Watson of Heat Trust, comments, 

“As the independent consumer champion for those living and working on heat networks, we believe that when things go wrong customers have a right to expect that they are put right as soon as possible and to receive compensation for any loss.  Those heat network suppliers who have signed up to our Scheme are committing to doing just that on the sites registered with us.  Whilst this is welcome, our Scheme covers just 10% of the market today.  That means that the majority of customers lack even this basic support.  As we head into a difficult winter it is vital that customers receive the protection they deserve.  All heat network suppliers have the opportunity to fix this today by signing up to our standards, something I urge them all to do.”

FPA’s appeal to the minister comes after a concerted attempt to get the Heat Network industry to take action itself.

After years of lobbying, legislation of the “heat” industry is expected by 2022. It will bring in customer protection similar to what Ofgem offers users of gas and electricity, including guaranteed service payments to cover outages.  Fuel Poverty Action maintain that until this protection comes in, the heat industry should start acting now on what legislation will soon impose, and ensure that no one is out of pocket or unable to afford warmth and hot water due to heat network failures.  They say a winter of pandemic is no time for profit making businesses to be taking advantage of the current lack of regulation, at vulnerable customers’ expense.

Many failing heat networks can be dramatically improved by relatively inexpensive adjustments and upgrades.  Others require major work, but even this would be many times less costly than repeated repairs to constant breakdowns, year after year after year.

Ruth London of FPA concludes:

“The government has chosen to commit to heat networks infrastructure as a “no regrets” way forward to decarbonising heat. It should now commit to insisting that people are made safe from system failures.  And its “green recovery package” should include loans, where needed, to bring existing heat networks up to a standard which does not imperil the health of the people who use it.  

We are asking the government  to include such provision in funding for a green recovery from Covid-19.   In the meantime, both the government and the heat industry must answer the question: what consequences of their inaction are acceptable?  What price must customers pay for an unregulated industry in a pandemic year?

“We hope to hear from the minister soon.”

Notes:

(1) A growing number of UK residents, including many social housing tenants and leaseholders in high-rise and low-rise blocks, get their warmth and hot water from a heat network, often called “District Heating”.  Heat is produced centrally and distributed to flats, buildings, or a whole district in the form of hot water in pipes.  In a building served by a heat network, residents cannot switch supplier.  They have no control over their prices, or the maintenance of their systems.  In some cases, the network works well, saving on bills, and on carbon emissions.  In some it is disastrously unreliable, and residents face frequent “outages” with no heat or hot water.  The experience of many in touch with FPA is backed up by research, eg Citizens Advice study.  A survey by BEIS in 2019 found that “Service interruptions are relatively common in the HN sector. More than a third of heat network consumers reported experiencing an interruption/ loss of heating in the last 12 months (HN: 37%, non-HN: 24%) and were also more likely to have experienced multiple interruptions in the last 12 months (HN: 21%, non-HN: 11%).”

(2) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-agrees-measures-with-energy-industry-to-support-vulnerable-people-through-covid-19

(3) https://www.theade.co.uk/news/press-releases/putting-customersat-the-heart-of-our-pandemic-response-says-heat-networks-i

BEIS Heat Networks team can be contacted at [email protected]

To speak to Pat Edmonds or other representatives of estates and developments suffering multiple outages please contact FPA.

Fuel Poverty Action works with people facing unaffordable energy bills, or dealing with failing heating systems or uncaring landlords.  Our goal is affordable, sustainable energy for all.

Read all about it! FPA Annual Report for 2020

For millions of people finding money for fuel bills is more of a crisis than ever, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. More energy is 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. Many have found that their grocery bills have increased. One in five families with children have been going hungry in this wealthy country — and in poorer parts of the world, famines are underway. 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”.

This is the horror now being confronted by a groundswell of grassroots people andnetworks, organising to support our own families and communities and to demandfrom the government, from politicians, and from businesses, a total reversal ofpriorities. Health must come first, and an economy that prioritises the market hasbeen shown not to deliver on health. Brutal realities that have long been clear to millions who are fighting over fuel bills, housing, heating, food and inadequateincomes, are now public for the world to see. So is the money that can clearly befound when wanted, for instance for furlough and huge sums to keep businesses afloat. What seemed 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 the deadly energy markets andhousing provision that kill 10,000 people a year in cold homes and leave many others with no home at all. And at the same time, as the clock nears midnight, we may havea chance to avert the worst of a climate apocalypse.

Read the full report below, or download the PDF here.

Fuel Poverty Action Annual Report 2020

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!