Cranbrook’s district heating system under fire – no switching allowed and developers get a cut for 80 year contract

“Energy customers who find themselves paying over the odds for their heating can simply switch to a cheaper deal. But there’s a hidden, but rapidly growing, number who estimate they’re paying up to three times more than the expected price… but don’t have the right to switch. In most cases, they are stuck with the same supplier for 25 years or more.

They are among the 220,000 households signed up to District Heating networks which power entire estates by sending hot water and steam via insulated pipes from a central generator, instead of having a boiler in each home. [This is the system used at Cranbrook].

The system, often fuelled by natural gas or biomass, is supposed to point the way to a greener future and has the enthusiastic backing of government.

However, the suppliers are unregulated and customers of only five of them have the right to turn to the energy ombudsman if things go wrong. [The system at Cranbrook is run by E.on where it appears from this article customers do not have the right to go to the Ombudsman].

On the face of it, the schemes are good news. Unlike condensing power plants, that only use around a third of the electricity generated, district networks use 90%. Waste energy can be recycled, households no longer have to maintain their own boilers, and heating bills are supposed to be cheaper.

Last year the government announced it was investing £320m in expanding the system across the UK and predicts that it will supply 8 million households by 2030. In London, where new developments are required to be zero carbon, it is being used in most large estates.

In reality, though, residents complain of enormous, opaque energy bills, frequent outages and misinformation.

A Which? investigation in 2015 found that some schemes are poorly designed and that customers are being misled about costs. It also concluded that many people are unaware of the District Heating scheme when they purchase a flat.

… Any company – including the property developer – can set itself up as a District Heating supplier without a licence, and a full list of those in operation is not yet publicly available.

They are selected by the developer who will receive a commission, or a substantial contribution towards the network infrastructure, in return for a contract to supply the development for at least 25 years. E.on has an 80-year contract to supply Cranbrook, a new town in East Devon.

Once they’ve bought into a development, residents are locked into a monopoly. They are not allowed to fit solar panels or heat source pumps and, whether or not they use their heating, remain liable for often large standing charges which include maintenance and repair of the infrastructure.

Matthew Pennycook, Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, which includes eight District Heating networks, says residents tell him bills have tripled under the scheme, and there’s no transparency in consumption and billing. …

… Last year Pennycook [an MP] surveyed residents at New Capital Quay, a development in his constituency that uses e.on District Heating scheme. The responses, he says, provide “prima facie evidence of systematic problems” including inexplicably high bills and poor customer service.

Last April, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint by New Capital Quay residents that e.on’s advertised promise that its charges were comparable to those of a traditional gas boiler, was misleading. The sentence has since been removed from its website.

“E.on offers customers a market-leading energy source with long-term protections and guarantees, as well as affordable bills and a lower environmental impact,” the company claims.

There are fears that these issues will make it difficult to sell on flats. …

… Kabir Dhawan bought a one-bed flat in New Capital Quay in 2014. “I was told it was supplied by an energy-efficient scheme and was given a written promise that the costs would be no higher than for a conventional gas supply,” he says. “Instead, we are paying around £900 a year, including standing charges – the fixed cost of providing the home – of £1 a day.”

But 15 months ago the automated reading facility, which provides daily updates, stopped working.

“Some of my neighbours have the same problem, but although the standing charge is supposed to cover repairs to meters, it hasn’t been fixed,” he says.

“Instead, they’ve offered me £15 for the ‘inconvenience’.” Dhawan claims. “Because I can’t monitor my usage, I’m expecting a catch-up bill of around £500.”

Using e.on’s own estimates of consumption for a one-bed flat, he reckons that he is paying twice what he should for heat and hot water. Moreover, he says, the hot water supply is cut off for lengthy periods around once a month, most recently on New Year’s Day and that e.on often tries to duck the £30 payout due under its terms and conditions for outages of 24 hours or more.

A neighbour secured the compensation, due to all the residents after one such breakdown, but only after initiating legal proceedings.

E.on declined to comment on individual customer cases and stated it did not accept the basis of many of the allegations.

Dhawan fears that he will struggle to sell or let his flat because of the high costs and the service is a monopoly.”