District Heating, or “heat networks”, are supposed to be the answer to fuel poverty and reducing carbon emissions. However, while the UK government, and, in London, the GLA, have been strongly promoting District Heating, they have little evidence to show that it is meeting consumers’ needs, or helping the environment.
While some residents groups have fought to keep heat networks that have kept them warm at low cost for years, others are paying a heavy price and are insisting on an overhaul of how this technology is provided.
In April 2017, Fuel Poverty Action published a detailed report of the District Heating scheme in Myatts Field North, south London. “Not Fit for Purpose”[i] laid out the huge problems faced by residents on this mixed tenure, private and council estate, and their struggle to hold the supplier, E.ON, and LB Lambeth to account. This led to a BBC Radio 5 Live investigation broadcast 30 April. [ii]
Since that programme and report, residents from other schemes have been in contact with FPA highlighting similar difficulties.
A first meeting of District Heating residents from different estates took place in London on 20 May.
Two residents attended from the Pembroke Park estate in Hillingdon, West London, where 105 households – a mix of social tenants and shared owners with A2Dominion Housing Association – have lived through seven years of serious problems without either compensation or redress:
- For the first nine months in 2011 no bills were sent to residents, leaving them with huge back bills of over £500 in some cases. These are still haunting customers, who are now being asked to pay them off through prepayment meters which take up to 35% of the money put in. No one can tell if the arrears being demanded are correct.
- Residents were told that if they did not accept smart prepayment meters they would be cut off.
- For the first five years there were constant outages of heat and hot water, even while residents were paying an average of £80 a month. New communal gas boilers have improved this but there are still outages, most recently in March 2017, as well as continuing serious problems with water temperature and heat.
- Residents were promised bills of around £22 a month but some are paying £50 a week on the pre-payment meter. Some leaseholders and shared owners are being charged an extra £50 a month for “service and maintenance”.
- Thermal imaging shows that due to lack of insulation, Pembroke Park residents are “heating the street”, in the words of John Turner, A2Dominion director, who has done nothing about it. One household with a very sick child did eventually get insulation; nothing was done for the many other vulnerable residents.
- Customer service has been very poor.
There has been hardly any progress to date, despite residents highlighting issues with their local MP, Nick Hurd — the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, in charge of promoting District Heating across the country.[iii] Another meeting is now being set up with Nick Hurd, if he is re-elected, and residents plan to increase the pressure on their social landlord A2Dominion and the developers Taylor Wimpey.
Tracey Rogers, from Pembroke Park, says,
“They promised us in 2011 they would clear the bill but they never did; they were even billing people for usage before they had moved in. I am now putting £50 a week on the pre-payment meter and getting £32.50 of energy. They are back-billing us for a bill that is over 6 years old, that we never agreed to, they never asked us, they have not taken our incomes into consideration, they have never considered the vulnerable, the low or no income households and they have refused to credit or compensate us for the poor service over all these years.”
Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action says,
“FPA supports the principle of District Heating, which should be able to bring down both bills and carbon emissions. However, we are getting a flood of complaints from residents, who are paying horrendous prices for an appalling service. In the winter, many are going cold. With District Heating unregulated, complaints very often lead nowhere. Even metering and billing, the only two aspects of District Heating which are supposed to be regulated, still, tend to be exploitative, with smart meters failing to function, absurdly high estimates, and chaotic billing / back billing, taking advantage of users’ inability to switch.
Residents are left to navigate through a complex web of organisations which can range from the heat network operator, the housing association or housing developer, and the council, to the Heat Trust and the energy ombudsman – all of which wash their hands of any responsibility. Meanwhile they are tied against their will to contracts that can last for generations, and are financing a major UK infrastructure change.”
We are now hearing from dissatisfied residents on a regular basis and will be highlighting further such schemes over the coming weeks. Even Ofgem and ADE – the trade body of the Heat industry – are actively discussing the need for regulation.[iv] Yet the Task Force created by ADE has no representative of District Heating users on it.
Residents of Pembroke Park are available for interview.
[i] For the full report and the executive summary see here: https://www.fuelpovertyaction.org.uk/research/
[iii] Nick Hurd https://www.gov.uk/government/people/nick-hurd has been the Minster for Climate Change and Industry, and together with the Minister for Industry and Energy this brief includes “energy efficiency and heat, including fuel poverty”.
ADE (Association for Decentralised Energy) see https://www.theade.co.uk/news/press-releases/industry-launches-new-district-heating-task-force-welcomed-by-government