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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *