Tenants of some local 'Build to Rent' schemes have found themselves trapped in the freeholder's contracts with utility and broadband suppliers, with no ability to switch accounts. Fuel Poverty Action reveal similar problems in a new build development in Tower Hamlets.
Fuel Poverty Action is today publishing a remarkable exposé showing how families have been left in the cold because their unaffordable heat network and their social housing tenancies have created a legal limbo. For their heating, they are tied to one supplier, but they have no control of prices, no contract, no legal rights, and no one to complain to. This crisis has been created by a toxic - but increasingly common - mix of unaccountable housing and unaccountable heating. The tenants have led a long fight for affordable warmth and against the odds, have won major price reductions.
Phoenix Works is a new build development in Tower Hamlets with 28 ”affordable rent” tenants housed by Peabody housing association(1). When they moved in, tenants “couldn’t believe” what their prepayment meters were consuming. Many simply could not pay the up to £250 a month required to keep warm. Some had to move out and stay with relatives, some got ill, some went deeply into debt. Meanwhile their landlord and heat provider passed the buck to each other, displaying a sense of impunity, and dazzling incompetence.
The tenants’ heat is provided by a “Heat Network”. Heat networks are like central heating for a whole estate, and are being heavily promoted and subsidised by the government on the grounds that they offer a low-carbon alternative(2). Customers of a Heat Network cannot switch, nor is there any price cap or, as yet, any regulation. Assessed as eligible for “affordable housing”, the ex-council tenants had no warning of the extra costs, and no heat contract. They could not even find out who was responsible for their heating and tariffs: the estate management, KFH, or their social landlord, Peabody?
Ms Lewis, who has led the fight for affordable heating at Phoenix Works says,
“Peabody can’t escape responsibility for allowing tenants to suffer. Some have had to choose between heating homes and feeding families during winter months, all because of the lack of information and accountability from the very beginning. Do we have to just put up and shut up with whatever charges KFH decide to throw at us? We would never have chosen to live this way had we been given the choice.”
Ruth London from FPA says,
“Cold kills. 10,000 people die each winter in the UK because they can’t afford to heat their homes. And that was the number before a respiratory pandemic!
Heat Networks are supposed to provide low carbon, low cost, reliable heat. But FPA work with residents in many such estates who are fighting huge bills, constant heating breakdowns, or both.The sheer unaccountability of both heating and housing management has never been more blatant than at Phoenix Works.”
With Fuel Poverty Action(3), tenants are calling for a public inquiry to uncover what has happened and what structural and legal changes are needed to prevent it happening anywhere again.
Tenants from Phoenix Works are available for interview. Also available are residents from other heat network estates in Tower Hamlets and all over London who are suffering from high prices or frequent outages, both of which can leave households without either heat or hot water.
As well as Fuel Poverty Action, the Phoenix Works tenants have won support from SHAC, who contributed to the dossier, from the Heat Networks team at BEIS (email@example.com), and from their MP, Apsana Begum.
For substantial coverage in The Times see HERE.
New developments are required to set aside a proportion of flats for “affordable housing”. Rents in these lower standard apartments are up to 80% of market rates, which in some places, like London, can be extremely high, and tenants may face lower standards and “poor doors”. Most of the other residents are leaseholders.
Heat networks pipe heat into homes from a communal gas boiler. Also known as “District Heating”, this system are said to save carbon emissions by being more efficient than gas boilers, by producing electricity at the same time as heat if using a central “Combined Heat and Power” boiler, and because they have the potential to use renewable or waste heat sources instead of combustion. But where systems are badly designed, installed, or maintained, residents can go cold, and carbon savings in practice can be nil.
Fuel Poverty Action is a grassroots organisation started in 2011, which since 2017 has been supporting residents all over London who are organising for reliable and affordable heat from their heat networks. In 2017 we published Not Fit For Purpose, a report on the heat network on Myatts Field North, which is now being pressed into service again by residents there. Our many consultation responses on the issue can be found here.