Heat networks customers are mainly complaining to the Energy Ombudsman about billing, according to a landmark report launched today by Heat Trust.

Launched in 2015, Heat Trust is a stakeholder-led customer protection scheme that sets consistent customer service standards for the heat network sector, building on standards in the gas and electricity markets.

The scheme, which already covers 51 heat networks and more than 30,000 customers, provides an independent dispute resolution service for consumers through an agreement with the Energy Ombudsman. Heat Trust works with its Stakeholder Committee to monitor customer service performance and identify ways to drive up service standards.

For the first time, the Heat Trust annual report gives a snapshot into issues that are concerning customers.

The report showed that 1,417 complaints were resolved by heat suppliers registered with the scheme.

Heat suppliers received complaints from around 6% of households on Heat Trust registered schemes between November 2015 and September 2016. In 2016, there were 3.5 million complaints to domestic gas and electricity suppliers, which is around 11% of all accounts.
A total of 73 complaints were referred to the Energy Ombudsman from customers on 24 heat networks registered with Heat Trust between November 2015 and December 2016.

Almost three quarters (74%) of complaints related to issues around billing or back-billing. More than half of complaints about billing related to standing charges (54%). Of all the complaints resolved by the Energy Ombudsman, nearly three quarters of people accepted the Energy Ombudsman’s decision.

“Customer satisfaction must be at the heart of plans to grow the heat network sector,” said Bindi Patel, Head of Scheme at Heat Trust.

“The findings from our report shine a light onto areas where attention should be focused to support customer service improvements. It is essential that there are consistent and measurable industry-wide standards on customer service and protection, and that customers have a voice in shaping the market.

“Heat Trust plays a vital role in ensuring customers living on heat networks know the service standards they should expect from their heat supplier and can access independent redress when needed.

“All heat networks should meet and provide monitoring against the Heat Trust standards, and this should be a condition of schemes in receipt of public funding.”

Each heat network that registers with Heat Trust is required to submit data on complaint volumes, faults, and supply interruptions every six months. In addition, the Energy Ombudsman provides feedback on complaints it receives from customers on Heat Trust registered sites.

Lewis Shand Smith, Chief Ombudsman for the Energy Ombudsman, said:

“It is vital that customers have access to independent redress. Heat Trust offers customers living on heat networks access to the same independent complaints resolution service provided to consumers in the gas and electricity sectors. It is important the sector takes on board the report’s findings and continues to invest in customer service to increase consumer confidence in the heat network market.”

Heat Trust is starting to build an evidence base on how heat networks are performing and the service customers are receiving. Heat Trust’s report found that clearer communication with customers and more transparency on charges would be key to improving customer satisfaction moving forward.

Complaints indicate that customers are not always informed that a property is on a heat network prior to moving in. The report says there is an opportunity for the industry, developers, landlords and estate agents to work collaboratively to ensure a consistent approach is adopted to inform customers that a heat network is present and to supply customers with the current tariff details and a sample Heat Supply Agreement prior to accepting to purchase or rent a property.

To help improve the transparency and information on heat network costs, Heat Trust has developed a Heat Cost Calculator. The Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), the industry body that represents the heat network industry established an industry task force on district heating earlier this year. The task force is exploring whether other industry and/or regulatory steps are needed.

The report also found variations on how data metrics are interpreted by different suppliers, highlighting the need for an industry-wide performance framework. Heat Trust urges the ADE to continue its work on technical compliance for the sector, which includes performance