Heat Trust, the consumer champion for heat networks, says customer service standards are continuing to rise across the industry.

The independent customer protection scheme has hailed a successful fourth year of holding the heat network industry to account, with figures from its latest annual report showing that complaints regarding heat networks reduced by 54% in 12 months.

Heat Trust was launched in November 2015 to put customers at the heart of the rapidly expanding heat network market. It sets consistent customer service standards for the sector, building on standards set in the gas and electricity markets.

Up to five million homes could be reliant on the heat network infrastructure by 2050, a ten-fold increase from the estimated 440,000 homes currently on heat networks in the UK.

“We are pleased and encouraged with the progress demonstrated in our fourth report,” said Heat Trust Director Bindi Patel.

“The industry recognised the need to address challenges around customer experience and to put consumers at the centre of all future plans. The standards we have set through Heat Trust are helping to improve the market for the better and ensuring that people living on heat networks know what to expect from their suppliers.

“It is also encouraging that our contribution has been recognised across government.”

Latest figures show an average of 4.72 complaints per 100 customers in 2019 down from 12.9 per 100 customers the previous year.

There was also a drop in the number of complaints referred to the Energy Ombudsman – although of all complaints made to the Ombudsman only 9% were not upheld.

Heat Trust’s standards mean customers receive guaranteed service payments if they have experienced an outage that has not been restored in an agreed timeframe. More than £25,000 worth of payments were made to customers for this reason.

Research into annual heat bills by The Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy suggests that, on average, an annual heat bill on a heat network is £100 lower compared to individual heating. However, billing and heat charges have continually been the topics customers most frequently raise complaints on.

Billing and charges accounted for 37% of complaints, closely followed by technical issues representing 36% of complaints.

The annual report highlights the importance of data collection and the need for industry wide performance metrics.

Joanna Read, Policy and Operations Adviser at Heat Trust, said “Each year we have been able to report on more and better quality data. Going forward we are seeking to gather further insights such as on debt and disconnection.

“This year we have collaborated with our Registered Participants to develop more meaningful metrics for outages such as origin of the issue, where there is a clear overlap with customer experience. However, wider performance metrics for the sector are needed to progress this work further.”

Heat Trust remains a voluntary scheme but is continuing to expand each year. It now provides protection to more than 10% of all residential and micro-business customers on heat networks, with 80 heat networks accounting for over 50,000 homes and micro-businesses registered.

The government has confirmed it intends to introduce statutory regulation and appoint a sector regulator to the heat networks industry, a move that has been welcomed by Heat Trust.

Ms Patel added: “Heat networks have been identified as enabling infrastructure in all decarbonisation scenarios set out by the Committee on Climate Change, but they must offer a good experience to customers if the market is to grow as projected.

“Heat Trust will continue to champion service standards in the industry and will seek to make sure that issues such as transparency over charges, clarity on terms and services and accountability over technical performance are part of a future regulatory framework.”

ENDS

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Notes to editors:

Heat Trust launched in November 2015. It sets out a common standard in the quality and level of customer service that heat suppliers should provide their customers.

It also provides an independent process with the Energy Ombudsman for settling complaints between customers and their heat supplier. This service is free for customers to access. 

Our annual reports can be found here: https://www.heattrust.org/annual-reports-v2

For more information contact Bobbie Hough at Hough Bellis Communications on 07794204268 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Today, Heat Trust welcomes an agreement by members of the Heat Network Investment Council (HeatNIC) to ensure heat networks customers are protected and supported during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The agreement sets out a series of commitments, which echo key principles and requirements set by Heat Trust. In addition, many of the HeatNIC members with operating heat networks serving residential customers are Registered Participants of Heat Trust.

Welcoming the agreement, Bindi Patel Director of Heat Trust said:

“Energy is an essential service and during this time it’s important that customers are supported and have access to reliable heating and hot water. This requires a caring and flexible approach.
I am very pleased to see the Heat Networks Industry Council make this pledge today, which echoes key principles required by Heat Trust. The steps outlined by the Council in conjunction with the standards set by Heat Trust are a clear demonstration of the heat network sector’s commitment to protecting customers.”

Heat Trust is working with its Registered Participants to ensure customer needs are prioritised and supported. A dedicated coronavirus page for customers can be found here.

Notes

About Heat Trust

Heat Trust is all about protecting heat network customers.

We are an independent, non-profit consumer champion for heat network customers that holds the industry to account for the benefit of everyone involved. We make sure customers enjoy heating systems fit for the future by:

  • Applying strict customer service standards to heat suppliers, similar to those for traditional gas and electricity suppliers;
  • Providing access to an independent dispute resolution service through the Energy Ombudsman; and
  • Working with suppliers to promote best practice, innovation and continuous improvement in customer service.

Launched in November 2015, Heat Trust provides protection to over 10% of residential and micro-business heat network customers. Our annual reports can be found here.

About HeatNIC

The Heat Networks Industry Council brings together leaders of the heat networks industry to support Government in achieving its vision of achieving a sustainable industry. The Council’s offer to Government, to be published in the next few months, will identify measures it can take to:

  • Create jobs and investment (focusing on the investment that could be unlocked by the sector, and the number and quality of jobs that will be created as a result)
  • Cut costs (to both those looking to invest in heat networks and customers supplied by a heat network)
  • Set out the industry’s commitment to decarbonisation
  • Create more liveable, smarter cities (including how it can support grid balancing services and flexibility and improve air quality)
  • Drive excellence in customer service and standards 

The Council has been established by the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), who provide the Secretariat.

The Coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact across the country.

The UK Government and devolved administrations have announced a series of measures to minimise the spread of the virus, including asking people to work from home if possible, and avoid any unnecessary social contact and travel.

These measures mean that people are spending more time at home, which in turn could lead to higher energy consumption patterns and increased reliance on their heating and hot water supply.

Supporting customers during this time

Energy is an essential service and during this time it’s important that customers are supported and have access to reliable heating and hot water. Registered Participants of Heat Trust are required to have in place contingency plans to ensure continuity of supply and to mobilise plans to support customers. Most suppliers should have a dedicated page on their website to direct you to what support they are offering during the pandemic. 

If you are concerned about your supply of heating or hot water

If you have any concerns about your supply of heating or hot water, particularly your ability to pay for these services, then you should contact your supplier in the first instance. Contact details should be on your bill or annual account statement, or on the heat supply agreement you signed when you first moved in. If you’re a tenant and are unsure who your heat supplier is then contact your landlord.

Energy suppliers’ call centres are likely to be busier at the moment, so please check your supplier’s website first if you can, to see if there is any information that may help answer your query.

Check how you pay your heat bills

Do you normally have to leave your home to pay for your energy bill? Do you think you might have problems paying your bill due to Coronavirus? Contact your supplier first, who will be able to discuss the way you pay your bills, or may be able to agree a payment plan.

Your supplier should already have additional support available for those on low income or severe financial insecurity. It is advisable to inform your supplier of any potential payment issue as soon as possible, so you can discuss the best course of action.

Are you in a vulnerable situation that requires extra support?

All heat suppliers registered with Heat Trust are required to hold a register of customers in vulnerable situations that require additional support. This is commonly called a priority services register, or vulnerability register.

If you have a particular reliance on your heating or hot water that your supplier is unaware of, it is important to notify your supplier as soon as possible. This may be due to your age or health condition, or that of a member of your household. Your supplier may be able to provide additional support for you, for example if there should be an outage.

What to do if you have a complaint?

You should still raise any issues you have directly with your supplier. If you are on a site regsitered with Heat Trust and cannot resolve the issue with your supplier and it has been over eight weeks, then you can take your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman. See our complaints page for more information. Please note that customer service departments are likely to be busier than usual at this time, so try to be patient and it might be helpful to keep a record of when you tried to make contact.

Are you renting your home?

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has published relevant guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities in the private and social rented sectors in England in the context of Coronavirus; this is available here. This guidance states that landlords’ repair obligations have not changed. Tenants have a right to a decent, warm and safe place to live – and it is in the best interests of both tenants and landlords to ensure that properties are kept in good repair and free from hazards.  

Other support and information

Most charities and helplines are still operating a remote service via telephone helplines or their websites. An update on their services as well as advice and guidance in relation to the current Coronavirus situation can be found via the following links:

UK Government Information and guidance on Coronavirus and the support government is providing can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

Citizens Advice has updated their website to provide information on Coronavirus here: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/health/coronavirus-what-it-means-for-you/

Citizens Advice Scotland also have a page on Coronavirus more tailored to the situation in Scotland: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland/health/coronavirus-what-it-means-for-you-s/

The UK Government has announced a package of measures to support people facing difficulties as a result of Coronavirus. A summary of the support available can be found on the Citizen’s Advice webpage here: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/debt-and-money/if-you-cant-pay-your-bills-because-of-coronavirus/

Age UK is a dedicated charity helping older people. They have advice on Coronavirus here: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/coronavirus/coronavirus/

Mind. This is a very unnerving time for everyone. Mind is a mental health and wellbeing charity that can provide support if you are feeling anxious or worried. More information can be found here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/

National Energy Action (NEA) – national charity on fuel poverty that delivers direct support to customers. While face-to-face support is currently suspended to reduce transmission of the virus, they are still operating telephone support. https://www.nea.org.uk/mediafactsheets/help-during-covid19/

Scope is a disability equality charity in England and Wales. They have prepared advice on Coronavirus here: https://www.scope.org.uk/coronavirus-information/

National debtline: if you would like to speak to an independent organisation regarding debt advice, you may wish to contact National debtline – who can provide dedicated advice on debt: https://www.nationaldebtline.org/EW/factsheets/Pages/coronavirus-advice-and-support/help-and-advice.aspx

Samaritans: offer free support to anyone struggling to cope or experiencing emotional distress: https://www.samaritans.org/ 

 

Finally, some heat network suppliers have signed an agreement to provide additional support to customers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Please see this page for whether your supplier has signed up and what additional supports might be available to you under this agreement. 

The transition to a low or zero carbon economy cannot be achieved unless it works for residents.

Heat networks are an essential part of decarbonising heating in the UK, being able to connect to any heat source including waste heat. Like any utility, there will be some customers who would benefit from additional support. There is a more particular need for care for customers in vulnerable circumstances living on heat networks because they are currently monopoly supply arrangements where customers cannot switch their supplier.

In the UK, heating and hot water are essential services for householders. Reliance on these services can be higher among certain residents, depending on their circumstances at any given time. For example, those with young children, those who spend a significant time indoors or have long-term illnesses are likely to have a higher level of dependence on household utilities. These customers may also have less flexible usage patterns of heating and hot water.

Other customers may find it challenging to communicate with providers due to their circumstances, such as mental health issues, those who are recently bereaved or experienced a significant life shock, language barriers or disabilities such as being partially sighted or hearing impaired.

Another potentially difficult interaction is for those who are struggling financially, whether because of on-going low income or recent events affecting financial stability, and many can feel uncomfortable or awkward discussing these issues with suppliers.

Any of these circumstances, along with many others, could affect us at any time, and can combine to mean that we are “less able to protect or represent our interests in the energy market”. This is Heat Trust and Ofgem’s definition of customers in vulnerable situations.

In fact, a Mando webinar recently pointed out that when you add up the various scenarios for vulnerable situations – e.g. considering that 1 in 4 UK residents will experience poor mental health every year, 21% of adults don’t have basic digital skills and 11 million people in the UK suffer from hearing loss – it becomes apparent that these are not minority considerations.

How the heat supplier interacts with all customers, but especially those in vulnerable situations, can have a significant impact on their satisfaction and willingness to engage further with their supplier.

Suppliers can be proactive in providing additional support for customers. Measures can include training frontline staff, both in responding to enquiries remotely and property visits, to be able to identify potential vulnerabilities and know what the supplier can offer that customer. It can also include processes such as flagging customer vulnerabilities on internal systems and robust strategies for keeping ‘priority services registers’ up-to-date.

Some heat suppliers are more prepared for this than others, which is where Heat Trust can help. Heat Trust sets minimum standards for the heat network sector on customers in vulnerable situations, among other customer protection standards, in our ‘Scheme Rules’.

Heat Trust has now been in operation for over 4 years, and we are reviewing the Scheme Rules in stages to ensure they remain fit for purpose. The first ‘package’ to be reviewed is customers in vulnerable situations, where we have looked at the approaches of other regulators e.g. Ofgem and Ofwat, and looked into NICE guidelines on how a warm home impacts health. This research also fed into additional guidance for the suppliers who are registered with Heat Trust.

This is timely as Ofgem, the regulator for gas and electricity markets, has recently updated its consumer vulnerability strategy. This area is also likely to be a key focus of the new regulator when UK regulation for all heat networks (currently out for consultation) is introduced.

If you work in this sector, or are interested in learning more, please read our consultation and answer any of the questions that are relevant to you in the form provided by Thursday 12th March.

Author: Joanna Read

Thursday 6th February 2020

Today, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published its consultation on a market framework for heat networks. The consultation confirmed that government intends to provide powers to Ofgem to be the statutory regulator for the sector.

Heat Trust welcomes the consultation and supports the decision to appoint a sector regulator.

The key proposals in the consultation centre on licensing and an authorisation regime:

  • The proposed legislative changes will give heat network developers equivalent statutory rights and undertakings to other utilities, such as gas and electricity. A licensing arrangement will be established for those parties that wish to secure these additional powers.
  • The proposed authorisation regime for consumer protection would give Ofgem oversight and enforcement powers across quality of service, provision of information and pricing arrangements for all domestic heat network consumers. This would be funded through fees scaled according to the regulated party’s size.

BEIS highlights the work of Heat Trust in the consultation, noting that by registering with Heat Trust now,
“organisations will not only be able to demonstrate the quality of their service to consumers right now, but they will also be better prepared for the transition to regulation.”

Bindi Patel, Director at Heat Trust said:

“This is a milestone moment. We welcome and support confirmation from government of its plans to introduce statutory regulation. Heat networks have an important role in decarbonising our heat supply. This consultation sets out an enabling framework to support industry, and importantly, ensures customers served by heat networks are robustly protected, and enjoy the benefits of low carbon heat.
 
“We are pleased that BEIS has stated that customer protection should apply to all residential and micro-business heat network customers. Work to deliver this ambition now begins, and we look forward to sharing our learnings and experience with government and Ofgem to help inform new regulation.”
 

Ends

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Notes

Heat Trust is all about protecting heat network customers.

We are an independent, non-profit consumer champion for heat network customers that holds the industry to account for the benefit of everyone involved. We make sure customers enjoy heating systems fit for the future by:

  • Applying strict customer service standards to heat suppliers, similar to those for traditional gas and electricity suppliers;
  • Providing access to an independent dispute resolution service through the Energy Ombudsman; and
  • Working with suppliers to promote best practice, innovation and continuous improvement in customer service.

Launched in November 2015, Heat Trust provides protection to over 10% of residential and micro-business heat network customers. Our annual reports can be found here.

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Contact details
Bindi Patel
Director
Heat Trust
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.