Council tenants in south London are demanding compensation after being left without heating for long periods over winter due to ongoing issues with a district heating system.
Southwark Council has been told by campaigners to do more to ensure its tenants can afford to heat their homes over the coldest months following the news that a planned new automated compensation service will not come into place until April.
Inside Housing has spoken to several Southwark Council tenants who have experienced issues with their heating this winter, some of whom have had issues stretching back for years.
Pauline Parrish, a 49-year-old cleaner who lives on the Rouel Road Estate in Bermondsey, said her heating has not worked since October last year.
She is using oil-filled radiators and an electric blanket to stay warm, which she said is costing her an additional £15-20 per week.
“No one’s got heating,” she said. “There’s one old lady I know, she’s going to bed at six o’clock every night in her bedroom to keep warm. She’s had no heating or hot water.”
Charlotte, a 33-year old mother and full-time carer for her two autistic sons, lives on the same estate.
She said her heating has only worked intermittently since October and turned off last week while she was ill with COVID-19.
Her heating cost her an extra £40 in October and November due to having to use heating fans, she said, while her bills continue to be higher as she is still experiencing issues, although these are “not as constant”.
“£40 doesn’t sound like much, but it is when that is double my bill and right on top of Christmas and my eldest son’s birthday and my only income is Carer’s Allowance,” she said.
Both Charlotte and Ms Parrish have not yet received any compensation for the additional money they have spent to keep their homes warm.
Ms Parrish said she was told that the council will decide whether she is owed compensation after the issue is sorted.
Leo Pollak, cabinet member for housing at Southwark Council, said the heating systems on the Rouel Road Estate have been “overhauled” and that the majority of homes now have heating and hot water, however some properties still have “outstanding issues”.
He said the council has provided fan heaters to residents who have requested them and that refunds will be provided in line with the council’s compensation policy, which is currently under review.
Over several years, Southwark Council has been experiencing ongoing issues in relation to its district heating systems, which have regularly led to heat and hot water outages for tenants.
Althea Smith, a 61-year-old retired nurse who has lived on the Acorn Estate in Peckham for over two decades, said she has been having problems with her district heating on and off for years.
She said before lockdown she would sometimes leave her house to go shopping as it was warmer than staying at home and said it was “terrible” having to deal with heating outages during the pandemic.
In response to ongoing issues, the council has taken the decision to introduce a new automated compensation service, based on a flat rate of £3 per day, which it hopes to roll out fully in April.
Cris Claridge, chair of the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO), welcomed the decision to introduce a new compensation service but said it was “regrettable that this will not come into effect until April 2021 when the impact of winter cold weather is almost over”.
He said the council must introduce “an interim emergency fund to cover hardship cases as of now” and said all future compensation payments should be paid directly to the householder, rather than into their rent account.
Ruth London, a founding member of the group Fuel Poverty Action, added: “Southwark residents have struggled for far too long with disastrously unreliable district heating.
“Especially in this health crisis, people need to be able to count on warmth and hot water.
“The council has plans to improve the heat networks and bring in automatic compensation – but this has gone on for years, and no one can afford to wait now.
“Out-of-pocket expenses for alternative heating should be paid right now so people can keep warm.”
An investigation into Southwark’s district heating system, carried out by the council’s Housing Scrutiny Commission last year, found that “unreliability of some existing heat networks is a direct consequence of ageing infrastructure and a lack of strategic investment over many years”.
Kieron Williams, leader of Southwark Council, told the commission at the time that the council “never had enough money to do all the repairs that we want to do”.
The council estimated that it would need to invest at least £350m to bring the condition of its heat networks up to a modern standard.
Mr Pollak said: “We know many of our older heat networks have seen substantial problems of late and recently approved plans for a concerted period of investment to achieve the reliable, affordable and sustainable heat our residents deserve.”