Many of us don’t trust energy suppliers, but what if you were stuck with one supplier for as long as you lived in a property, with no control over the price you pay? This is the reality for many district heating customers.
More than 200,000 homes across the UK are connected to a district heating network. This is where heat from a central source is distributed to properties through a network of pipes. And its use is growing, particularly in built-up urban areas. The Government thinks district heating could provide heat to eight million homes by 2030.
There are benefits; it can be low carbon and there’s no need to maintain a gas boiler. However, there is currently very little protection for consumers living in properties connected to district heat networks. They have no choice in who they get their heat from. No access to an ombudsman should they have a complaint. And no control over the price they pay.
We’ve uncovered unacceptable detriment
Over the past year we have been conducting a major investigation of district heating. We spoke to customers on district heating networks, including those of you who shared your views here on Which? Convo. We found widespread dissatisfaction, with cost a major concern.
The people we surveyed had concerns ranging from worry that they had been mis-sold district heating, to confusion around what was included in their bills. Many of them felt let down and frustrated by poor customer service and complaints handling procedures.
It’s an emotive issue, as one private homeowner from London told us:
‘We are stuck between the supplier and the developers, with each blaming the other for the lack of hot water. All the while we … face numerous outages and so have to boil a kettle to wash or bath my two and a half year old in.’
We also looked at the cost of district heating and found a huge difference in the price paid by customers. Some were paying up to 25% more for their heating than if they’d been on a standard gas deal, and that includes all the additional costs of installing and maintaining a gas boiler. In many cases, district heating customers couldn’t understand why they were being charged a high standing charge, despite not having the heating on and using little or no hot water.
District heating – what’s the solution?
We have been working with the industry on Heat Trust, a voluntary consumer protection scheme. Heat Trust aims to replicate many of the protections available to those with gas or electric heating, such as access to an ombudsman and guaranteed standards of performance. However, as a voluntary scheme, it won’t cover all consumers and it won’t tackle the issue of fair pricing.
Access to affordable and reliable warmth and hot water is a fundamental right; we rely on it for comfort and health. Everyone deserves a fair deal and great customer service from their heat supplier. However, there’s a danger that district heating companies will take advantage of their unregulated, monopoly position.
We think the next government needs to step in to address the issue. It must look beyond ‘voluntary’ consumer protection and review fair pricing for district heating schemes, while heat suppliers should improve complaints handling and ensure pricing is transparent.
Do you have first-hand experience of district heating? Do you think the next government needs to step in to protect consumers?