Advice for people on heat networks (“District Heating”) having trouble with outages, high prices, or both

At Fuel Poverty Action we are dealing with many situations of this kind where people are being left in the cold, or without hot water, again and again and sometimes for long periods. FPA are working with residents in several estates, but we are constantly being contacted by more, and we’re currently trying to work out the best way forward. In the meantime, some of the advice below may be useful to you. Please keep us posted!

It is hard to make progress because you have few legal rights. Legislation is due in 2022 but until then heat networks are unregulated, except for some limited legislation on metering and billing. And even when it comes in, it will not solve everything, especially as both heat providers and landlords often act as if they are simply above the law.  

There are however some levers, and some success stories. We know of two places where residents have succeeded in getting their tariffs cut in half, one reported here, and for the other — watch this space!  Heat networks CAN provide reliable and relatively sustainable heating, at a fair price, and no one should have to put up with the opposite!

  1. The housing ombudsman can and does take action on heat networks and complaint process failures. See their recent report on this here and the article in Inside Housing. In some situations you want the Energy Ombudsman instead, usually if your estate or development is a “registered participant” with the Heat Trust.

  2. BEIS – the government’s department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is promoting and supporting heat networks. The Heat network team there knows a lot about the problems and are actively engaged in trying to get solutions. Do contact them directly at [email protected] and copy in Fuel Poverty Action at [email protected]. They will help if they can, and will also use what information you provide to try to ensure that the legislation, when it finally comes out, is fit for purpose and takes account of the real problems you are having.

  3. The Heat Trust. You can see if your estate belongs to this here (you need to scroll down).  Not only the heat provider, but the particular heat network site needs to be part of this scheme for the Heat Trust Rules to apply. If your estate IS registered, then there are rules on compensation etc which are often ignored but can be enforced.

  4. Naming and shaming. Some social landlords are concerned about their reputation (although many big housing associations now are just big developers who don’t seem to care about residents at all). Twitter campaigns can be effective as can media exposure (for a recent example see here; many other stories that don’t hit the national press, radio or tv, are regularly exposed by local papers. In London, the Standard is also worth trying. FPA gets requests for people who are ready to speak out about their situation (usually named, but sometimes it can be anonymous). If you’d like to be contacted for this, please let us know.

  5. Some private companies, which includes many heat providers, are sensitive to their reputation for commercial reasons, and can also be approached through their shareholders.

  6. Getting hold of any contracts between your landlord, the freeholder, management agents, heat providers, etc can be crucial — but not always easy to do!  If a public body, like the council, is a party to any contracts they can be subject to Freedom of Information requests. If you’re launching a legal case, you can get hold of contracts. You can also look at what your landlord and heat provider says about themselves and commits to on their websites, and at how they promote your estate or development, and see if they are keeping to their image and their commitments. Compare and contrast!

  7. Campaigning is always much more effective collectively. Do you have a tenants and residents association (TRA)? If not, in London you can contact London Tenants Federation for advice on how to form one. If you are in a Housing Association, you can also get help from SHAC. Many estates have both tenants and leaseholders; it is always useful to unite if you can, and at least work together if you can’t. The terms of heat agreements can be different for both, but you will be much stronger together, and each has some rights (eg to information) that the other doesn’t have. If forming a TRA is not possible at the moment, lots of people do very well with facebook groups – this can be a great beginning and may lead to a TRA which will have legal status and carry more weight.

  8. Some MPs and councillors, and the council’s housing committee, will pick up your issues. They all should. They can sometimes get answers where you cannot, and can give your situation prominence. You can write to them directly and then copy them into all your correspondence with your landlord, estate managers, or heat providers.

  9. There may be other local organisations that would be happy to help you put pressure on, where it is required. When lockdown ends, a little demonstration, for instance, could be effective in raising your profile. In the winter, FPA sometimes help organise “warm-ups” where people who can’t heat their own homes go into a public building or some relevant offices, speak out and keep warm there!

  10. Obviously, if the council is your landlord, there are many other levers you can pull. Let us know and we’ll try to help you access them, and put you in touch with others who have been doing this, eg in Southwark.

  11. The law. It is not an easy undertaking, but the Heat Trust website gives some information on rights for people on sites that are not registered with them, here. This gives useful links to Landlord and Tenant law, consumer law, rights to repair, and the Homes fit for Human Habitation Act. You may be dependent on some residents being eligible for legal aid.  And even then, getting anything enforced is an uphill battle, but you know that! If you are considering taking legal action please let us know.

  12. FPA’s website has a lot of information about high tariffs, standing charges, and frequent and/or prolonged outages of heat and hot water. For a good (terrible) example, see our report Not Fit for Purpose; for more examples and policy recommendations please see our various submissions to BEIS, the GLA, the CMA and others, here.

  13. Please consider joining FPA’s network of active district heating residents — just drop us a line and we’ll put you on the mailing list, first off. You are welcome to use this list to keep us and others in a similar situation to yourself informed of your views and developments. Please also copy us into your correspondence with your landlord, heat provider, or estate management (preferably at the end of a thread, not as it goes along), but we will not necessarily be able to respond because…

  14. FPA has NO FUNDING for this work, and in fact, currently, no funding at all. We are devoted volunteers but you can help make sure the work expands and continues by fundraising for us, joining Friends of FPA here, or just donating, here. You can also subscribe (free) to our newsletter and event notifications here.

  15. Resources permitting, we are hoping to call a meeting of our District Heating users’ network in the spring, probably together with some people from BEIS. Do let us know if you’d like to be part of that, and if you’d be ready to help pull it together. 

Update Winter 2020-2021

It’s been a long, hard winter, and we hope you’re all well. Here’s the latest news from FPA:

Rising Prices

On 5 February Ofgem announced their price cap increase, meaning a hefty rise in costs for everyone on default energy tariffs (and a likely rise in fixed tariffs as well, when they come due). Ruth London was on BBC TV News all day, with a substantial slot connecting issues from insulation and cladding to universal credit, pensions and homeschooling – and the need for a total reset because what we have now is killing us:

Check it out on Youtube. We also got a short bit on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and a statement in Energy Live News. We’re glad to have a chance to comment, with the UK’s already holey safety net just a memory, and now with wages so low and in the middle of a pandemic, any increase in energy prices must come with immediate changes in our resources.

At the same time however, we’ve been hard at work as usual on heat networks, on insulation and cladding, on pensioners’ health and standard of living, and have pitched in on issues of heat pumps, regeneration, fracking, and more.

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Heat Network Nightmares

A “heat network” works like central heating for a whole block, estate, or district.

Phoenix Works

We’re working with Peabody tenants in a new build Tower Hamlets development, Phoenix Works. They have been battling sky high tariffs – and have won a reduction by one half! We’ll shortly be making this public, so watch this space. They are still fighting to get a full refund of their overpayment, secure a better tariff for the future, get repairs done promptly, get better heat controls, and above all to make the heat provider accountable to them – which at present, they are not.

Oval Quarter

Oval Quarter, Lambeth, where FPA was heavily involved in bringing heat provider E.ON to account, is again having serious problems with unreliability. We’re back working with them after a gap of several years, following publication of our report on that heat network, Not Fit for Purpose in 2017.

New Festival Quarter & St Clements

We’re also working with two other Tower Hamlets heat networks – at New Festival Quarter and at St Clements, where residents have long been fighting scandalous charges, and other issues including insulation and cladding. We recently organised a meeting for residents from all three developments to meet together with their MP, Apsana Begum. On 4 February Ms Begum committed to taking their issues forward with the council, the GLA, the heat provider and landlords, and in parliament.

Southwark

In Southwark, the battle continues to get heat networks in working order – and in the meantime to win compensation so that when they are not working, residents at least can afford to use space heaters to keep warm. Despite all the efforts of residents, Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations, and FPA the council’s assurances that “no one will be out of pocket” have not been fulfilled. We’re told there will finally be a policy of automatic compensation of £3 per day, starting in April this year. In the meantime the suffering – and the health costs – are unbearable. See the account in Inside Housing. People in cold homes are taking to twitter to raise concerns of their council home without heating, or one of a relative. One tweets: “OAPs in block Clifton Estate SE15 fed up with communal heating ALWAYS going off EVERY year during COLDEST spells” . Last week another tweeter asked: “if someone dies from a cold home, is this corporate manslaughter?”

Broken promises on national Covid protection

In May 2020, many heat providers signed an Agreement to ensure that heat network customers were protected and supported during the COVID pandemic, to prevent disconnections and cold. The latest monitoring report, by the Heat Trust, finds:

“rising numbers of disconnections from some suppliers during the coldest part of the year, low reconnection rates and declining levels of support given to pre-payment meter customers. Heat Trust is also concerned at failures of some suppliers to keep to the terms of the Agreement and report on their activities.”

Between persistent outages and unbearable prices

Unregulated, unaccountable and uncaring heat providers are likely to have deaths on their accounts this Covid winter, despite widespread and determined efforts. We will never know how many.

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Pendleton, Salford – on the way to court

Residents of Pendleton Together’s high rise towers in Salford are taking their landlord to court over fire risks, maintenance, ineffective heating through NIBE heat pumps, and the freezing temperatures they are enduring now that their cladding has finally been removed. Read FPA member Graeme Langton’s account here. And see here a write up in Manchester Evening News, exposing the terrible cold that Pendleton residents are facing this winter. A group of Pendleton residents plus a reporter from the Salford Star led a breakout group at our December conference Making Green Come True. So far, Pendlton Together seem to disregard all public disclosure of what they are imposing on their residents.

In the last few days, and in the same week that the fire risks at Pendleton were highlighted in the Grenfell inquiry, the fire door through which residents would escape the building has been  left broken and unusable. Residents were not even informed or given any alternative evacuation plan.

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Pembroke Park, Hillingdon – light at the end of the tunnel

There is finally good news from this estate, where FPA has been supporting residents for many years. After years of pressure from residents, and the changing climate post-Grenfell, a new estate management has decided to do something about the fact that the estate was built by Taylor Woodrow in 2010 with its insulation missing. Tenant Tracey Rogers wrote in, in January to tell us:

“after 10 years of being cold, A2 sent 4 people around today to investigate my moans. The outcome is my house has no insulation, my sons room has to have all the walls and ceiling removed, the insulation in the loft had all fallen down (what little was there) I have to be moved out of my property for at least 6 weeks. So yes I have been literally heating the street. My next battle will be compensation.”

Tracey later got back in touch to tell us that her home was a building site, the workmen wear no masks, no alternative accommodation was offered and her daughter and grandchildren, who live with her, have had to move out and find somewhere to live for six weeks in the middle of a pandemic.

There are still many residents in Pembroke Park whose homes are not being insulated at all, and who have no idea when or if they will be.

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Regeneration, embodied carbon, communities and fuel poverty

In January we worked with others at the Radical Housing Network to formulate questions to mayoral and GLA candidates on embodied carbon and other environmental effects of regeneration, also touching on rent control, and the use of empty homes. This was following taking part in their meeting about Lambeth’s on Central Hill estate, where people have been camping to prevent demolition of a close community as part of a regeneration scheme. Early in the morning of 10 February, demolition workers arrived outside Truslove House, sparking a demolition resistance action. Police initially left the occupation alone, but the Council called a Gold Command meeting and at its request the police returned (20+ police with vans) to clear the occupation and cordon off the site. The resistance saw 25 people attending over 6 hours. The campaign will continue.

Many of these housing and heating issues will be raised at  Homes for All’s  “Housing and Health Emergency” summit, Saturday 20th of February. Some of us from FPA will be taking part in the SHAC workshop exploring how housing workers and housing association residents have worked together to get results. Other workshops include one focusing on evictions, disrepair, rents, Grenfell, health and poverty. It will all be on Zoom. Do come along and let us know if there’s something you would like discussed. You can register here.

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Government policy

FPA have been active on a policy level, in January submitting responses to government consultations on improving energy efficiency in the Private Rented Sector, and on their plans for the integration -or rather, the disintegration of the NHS.

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Fracking, plastic, and the building industry

We are in communication with Plastics Rebellion about running a session on Plastics in Construction at their weekly Tuesday evening Zoom.

We hope to talk about the widespread and very large-scale use of plastic as a building material, specifically for insulation and cladding. This led directly to the Grenfell fire, as FPA laid out at the time here. The Grenfell connection could add a pointed message to the plastics campaign.

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Keeping the issues in the public eye

We have consistently raised issues of heating and insulation at meetings and conferences in the housing movement. As Suz Muna of Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) told us, regarding their 28 January housing safety conference:

“we’ll be happy to have you speak at the conference. Your group raises an often hidden and silent health hazard, but one which blights many lives.”

Similarly, On 19 January we attended and contributed to the launch of The London Tenants’ Manifesto on the right to warm, and affordably warm, safe and healthy housing. We tweeted out the Manifesto here.

On 27 January we joined forces with South East London Community Energy (SELCE) to speak at Lewisham Pensioners Forum Annual Health Fayre on ‘How to Take Action on Fuel Poverty’.

We have also put people who want to speak out in touch with the media, and have done extensive briefing of members of the press on fuel poverty (eg. for the Mirror’s current campaign), and on housing issues that leave residents cold (eg. for Inside Housing and the Building Centre). After contact with another journalist last year, we received a copy of her final report on incinerators, which are often a heat source for district heating, but a pollution source for miles around. Josephine Moulds dissects their low carbon credentials and the pricing of these schemes.

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Practical tips on personal energy saving

With Citizens Advice (UK) and the Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty (STEP) project (H2020), En-Act have produced a series of 11 short videos that show how to save energy at home. While being informative, they are quite short and snappy. Here’s one about fixing draughty doors. Others cover electronics, kitchen, loft, bathroom, floors, laundry, lighting, radiators, windows and chimneys.

Still Not Safe — news from a Salford tower block

On the anniversary of Grenfell, I have been asked to write this blog post describing what its like living in a high-rise building with dangerous cladding on it like Grenfell had.  My name is Elizabeth and I live in a 22 story high rise housing association block in Salford, managed by Pendleton Together and owned by Salford council.

The block has flammable cladding. And a year on from the tragedy it still has the cladding on it except for the first three floors. And it’s been terrible living here since the tragic events for several reasons. Since the Grenfell fire me and several residents haven’t been able to sleep well and have been too scared to sleep, especially in the first few weeks. We were first promised that if anyone wanted to move they should just go to the Housing Association and they would look at our cases fairly. But unfortunately many residents, even the ones with kids on high floors and people with health problems and people with doctors letters recommending they are moved, have been denied a move. This has upset residents a lot since many kids and people with health problems died in Grenfell .

Elizabeth’s tower block in Salford – covered in flammable cladding

We have been told that removing the cladding is going to take two years and that they’re looking at installing sprinklers in the all the high rise blocks. A month after the Grenfell  fire the mayor  of Salford, Paul Dennett , said he would remove the cladding and that he wouldn’t wait for the report from the national and local government on testing whether the cladding that’s on our blocks is flammable like Grenfell.  And that he would borrow £25 million pounds to get the cladding off and keep residents safe.  Unfortunately, Pendleton Together only removed the first three rows, and a year later my block and many other blocks managed by Pendleton Together still have the major part of the cladding still on. Cladding only came off for the camera news crews and work stopped when the camera and TV news crews stopped filming.

There was a meeting I attended about a month after the Grenfell tragedy, which was held in Salford youth theatre, where the deputy mayor and other various speakers came to talk about Grenfell. When the meeting got heated the deputy mayor of Salford said we should be thankful he came, as he didn’t have to come to the meeting to let local residents know what the Salford Council was going to do about our unsafe home. He stated that the Salford council only had £25 million in its reserves, unlike Kensington and Chelsea, the council that the Grenfell Tower falls under.

In my block there is an internal fire alarm. When it goes off it only rings in the two exit stairwells which are located at both ends of the building, not the hallway, not the flats as it’s not connected to ring all the fire alarms to alert residents there is a fire in the building and to evacuate. The fire alarm is so quiet because the sound is coming from the stairwell. When it goes off, many residents don’t hear it. I and others have complained about that but nothing has been done.

We have had four fire alarms where residents had been told to evacuate the building and many residents were still inside with their kids and said they didn’t hear it. That’s no surprise since nobody lives in the stairwell.  I slept through one fire alarm as I couldn’t hear it as I was sleeping and it’s too quiet. If you have the TV or music on you might not hear it, or if you’re sleeping.

Secondly we have no fire blankets or small fire extinguishers to put out small fires, like many flats have for safety.

Thirdly we have no Tenants Association due to the fact the housing association locked us out of the community room and said not enough people attend the meeting. We usually have between 5 and 10 people at our tenants meeting, but they said it’s not enough. So we can’t make an official complaint as the Tenants Association meeting as we aren’t official. It’s been like that for two years now. Our community room has never been open to the tenants officially, it’s been used by the cleaners and by other blocks for their meetings, which is very unfair.

 If one tenant types a letter expressing the complaints of several tenants, the Housing Association will target the person whose address is on the letter and say that they’re the only one complaining. We have to put a resident’s address on the letters as a reply address, as the community room doesn’t have an address or letterbox,  that was binned after the refurbishment

We were promised raised beds to grow vegetables and fruit since many residents are on low incomes. We were hoping to donate the vegetables and fruit to the food bank but that never materialized even though it was on the plans of the refurbishment of the block.

We also have very expensive heating system called the NIBE system , that many residents can’t afford and that other housing associations have had to rip out due to expensive bills that it causes  for residents. Residents have complained about the NIBE but the Housing Association has just blamed the residents and said they haven’t use the NIBE properly.

The major refurbishment of our block included an electricity installation, and it’s caused many power surges that have tripped the electricity in my flat and others’ flats.  My cooker which was only a year and half old tripped my electricity and cut all my electricity off in my flat due to a power surge.  I called out the housing association, they sent an electrician who said it was my cooker. I then called the manufacturer who tested my cooker and said there was nothing wrong with it. My friend who lives in another flat also had problems with her cooker ever since the electricity refit. Her cooker is not working properly. We have never been offered any compensation and being unemployed I had to pay the bill just for the manufacturer to tell me there nothing wrong with my cooker.

Grenfell tower – hundreds of tower blocks around the UK are not fire safe

 Grenfell residents and their blog was complaining about the power surge since their refurbishment. It’s really worrying that we having the same problem. As it’s strange for a fridge freezer to catch fire. Rumours are that it’s the electricity surges and the upgrade of the block that made the fridge catch fire. I can’t know for sure but I don’t believe that fridges randomly catch on fire .

After Grenfell I don’t trust the Tory Government , my local council or the Housing Association.  It’s disgusting that a year after Grenfell many residents haven’t been rehoused.  And that residents who live in high rises like Grenfell with this cladding are being ignored. Its stinks of class warfare to me. Our lives don’t matter in these austerity times.

The housing association lastly have put fire marshalls who are meant to walk the floors 24 hours a day, but many residents have complained that they are always downstairs on the ground floor and never seen walking the floors. If the fire alarm goes off they are meant to run up stairwells , go on each floor  and alert residents to evacuate the building, but in practice they only seem to be on the second  floor or on the ground floor when the fire alarm has sounded, which has made many residents feel unhappy and unsafe.

These are the reasons why many residents are unhappy living in these high rises, because their problems aren’t being addressed and they are being denied a move to safe accommodation.

You can join the ‘Safe Cladding and Insulation Now’ facebook group to share your story and hear from others here.
Full details of the Fuel Poverty action ‘Safe Cladding and Insulation Now’ campaign can be found in the Cladding & Insulation sections of our website.