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By Bob Doris MSP

The Wyndford Tenants Union recently held a protest at SSE offices in Glasgow over standing charges for the local community heating and hot water supply. See media coverage of that protest

Issues regarding heating and hot water costs and disconnections have existed for some time. Matters came to a head around this time last year when in December 2018 I was involved in a race against time to get heating and hot water reconnected to dozens of households in Maryhill’s Wyndford estate before Christmas. Residents had been cut off by SSE due to (often disputed) arrears for heating and hot water costs.

Their supply was provided through a ‘heat network’ and as removing their supply did not involve disconnecting electricity (they were billed separately for electricity), households had less protection than energy customers. My office had been contacted by several household and supported many of them to be reconnected. There was issues around SSE’s punitive £274 reconnection fee and high levels of upfront payments required by SSE (routinely 50% of the debt owed) before a household would be reconnected.

My office secured some reconnections by persuading SSE to show flexibility. My thanks to Citizens Advice and Patrick Grady (currently SNP candidate for Glasgow North) for their support. However it took media attention which followed my question in parliament to Scotland’s First Minister (even though much of the matter is reserved to Westminster) to focus minds and to get dozens of households reconnected. My thanks to Glasgow North West Citizens Advice and to SSE who worked incredibly hard to make this happen.

See media coverage of these issues here

Customers accrue debt through daily standing charges even if they do not use the heating and hot water system, or are low users of the system. That is why we persuaded SSE to introduce a low user, low income tariff without a daily standing charge. A key point is this. SSE did not need to agree to introduce this tariff and the Scottish Government had no power to compel SSE to do so. Similarly we have no power to cap reconnection fees. It also transpired that many ‘vulnerable’ households (criteria applied) had been (wrongly) disconnected, and, that there was too narrow a definition to what constituted a ‘vulnerable’ household. SSE have since extended the criteria to include households with children under 5.

At this point let me say that whilst not always agreeing with SSE, we built up a constructive relationship and together with Citizens Advice, we managed to get many households reconnected to heating and hot water by Christmas Eve. At its height there was 121 households disconnected. As of 6/11/19 that had dropped to 46. A big improvement but still far too high.

I pay tribute to Wyndford Tenants Union who persuaded SSE to increase the usage threshold for which residents could qualify for the low user tariff and to have the eligibility criteria extended. But SSE should go further. The underlying issue is that such heat networks operate in a wholly unregulated area and vulnerable households have less protection than mainstream energy customers. That’s simply unacceptable. 

The Scottish Government intends acting on these matters. Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP visited Maryhill to hear about the issues local residents have had in the Wyndford estate (he visited on 6/11/19). The Scottish Government’s forthcoming Heat Networks Bill will hopefully drive up standards and introduce safeguards for customers. However the Scottish Government may be significantly restricted in efforts to protect vulnerable customers as consumer protection is reserved to the UK Government.

That power should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as a matter of urgency so we are not restricted in our efforts to protect vulnerable households who struggle to heat their homes.

Bob Doris MSP for Maryhill and Springburn (SNP)

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