A refurbishment program which promised an improved heating system for Stretford House in Trafford, turned into a lengthy ordeal for the tenants who have shivered their way through the fitting and subsequent multiple repairs that took years to complete, and then were forced to pay way over the odds for a still problematic heating system.
During that time it is alleged by a tenant that their landlord Trafford Housing Trust, did not formally log all complaints from the tenants, leading to “wildy inaccurate” figures published for repairs and complaints.
In the run up to fitting the new heating system in the 23 storey tower block Trafford Housing Trust (THT) promised a brand new communal heating system that would dramatically reduce the tenants bills for hot water and heating. By 2010 when the majority off flats had their heating swapped over, the tenants were painfully aware that these initial promises had not materialised, and in fact they had a swapped a working and relatively reliable system for a dysfunctional one that would soon become more expensive than their previous heating system.
The major refurbishment of Streford House, originally planned for the heating system to work in conjunction with new windows and cladding covering the outer wall of the building; which would have increased the insulation of the building and the output of the heating system was designed for that building specification. Due to cost cutting measures that didn’t consider the detrimental effects on heating, THT did not fit new windows or cladding leaving a heating system operating outside of its functional range.
Repairs service complaints
The effects on the tenants were severe says Phil Murphy a tenant and former chair of Stretford House Tenants and Residents Association (SHTRA). Some tenants reported having their heating on permanently but never reaching a comfortable temperature. This resulted in many tenants receiving much larger energy bills than they had with the previous system. Due to tenants concerns about the large bills THT began distributing electric fan heaters free off charge, with some tenants relying on these rather than the new heating system. It took THT three years to get the heating system working properly, it required a major overhaul with new pumps and filters fitted to get it to work correctly without the insulation present it had originally been designed for. Murphy claims during that time THT did not formally log all tenants requests for repairs, and when they wanted to complain about the lack of service instead of being put through the complaints procedure, they were logged as a request for repair instead:
“At one point there were so many issues arising that the trusts heating manager was in the foyer noting issues by hand, these issues were never logged as repairs. This means the trust’s published repairs and complaints for this period remain wildly inaccurate and not reflecting the nightmare tenants in Stretford House were enduring.”
Another tenant at Stretford House, Sam*, who moved in before the communal heating system was installed, was also unhappy with the fitting, operation and repair of the system:
“We have had ongoing problems with it since they put it in. People were not satisfied, you know, the heat output was just atrocious, you were forever having to have your heating on for long periods of time, which was obviously taking up lots of money and it just wasn’t cost effective… since its been put in they have been back and forwards to numerous flats and also to the boilers themselves downstairs, we have had different companies contractors to come in and do different things… every meeting that we had for the residents and tenants association, people were just bringing it up all the time, ‘what are you going to do? Its not adequate, its cold’.”
Alex* is also a current tenant of Stretford House who lived through the fitting of the communal heating system and was quick to ask THT to sort out the heating problems, “it was the first thing I did”. Alex went on to say that requests for repairs were common from tenants at that time and that “certain people did surveys and sat down stairs” in the entrance to Stretford House in an attempt to record tenants problems and improve THTs response to the heating issues.
Murphy is not the only person to question the record keeping of the repairs service at the Housing Trust. A THT Scrutiny Panel Report in 2017 stated that only “5% of customers” receiving a repair had been contacted for customer feedback and so was “not representative of the customer voice”. The repairs service also had a lower rating for satisfaction (six out of ten) than other systems across the Trust (seven out of ten). Also criticised was the structuring of questions asked, which prevented comparison to satisfaction rates from other landlords, a lack of accountability for ensuring implementation and that the surveys were primarily used to meet Trust targets rather than to drive service improvements.
Fuel Poverty Action are an organisation fighting for warmer homes and lower bills for tenants and their spokesperson Ruth London has plenty of experience of residents struggling with inadequate complaints systems, she says:
“It seems to be standard practice for landlords, and energy supply companies too, to fail to log complaints about faulty heating systems. The complaints are also often not dealt with, and compensation, even where it is stipulated, frequently needs to be fought for.”
The Meteor asked Trafford Housing Trust if they were “confident that all repairs and complaints from Stretford House residents were formally logged” during the fitting of the communal heating system and in the following years it underwent substantial repair. Samantha Lafferty, Director of Customer Experience at THT, replied:
“If we receive requests for repairs, we always try to resolve these for our customers straight away whilst they are on the phone by booking a repairs appointment. So, if a customer called to say that their heating wasn’t working, we would book a repair and one of our team would fix the problem. We would only log a formal complaint if asked to do so, or if the customer remained unhappy.“
A new complaints procedure had been established at THT early this year, that had seen the number of submitted complaints decline from the same period the previous year, Lafferty explained and stated that THT had implemented all of the recommendations made for improvements in the 2017 Scrutiny Panel Report.
Communal heating systems
The old heating system was a warm air system, where each tenant had their own gas supply and meter and were free to switch suppliers. The new system was a communal one consisting of two new large boilers which pumped hot water throughout the building to radiators in each flat. Crucially those with the new heating system were now locked into paying THT for their energy bills. When installed correctly communal hot water heating systems, can use significantly less energy when compared to the sum of energy used for individual gas fired boilers for a block of flats. So theoretically energy use and therefore the cost for tenants should have gone down – it went up at least double instead.
When the system was installed through 2010 THT claims the payment for gas was set at 4p/kWh by an independent price expert. However Murphy, Sam, Alex and at least one other tenant believe the initial price set for the gas supplied for the communal heating was lower than 4p/kWh, and a THT Stretford House Newsletter for July 2011, which The Meteor has seen, supports their claim which shows that the initial price was set at 3p/kWh and went up to 4p/kWh on 11 July 2011. The wording of the newsletter suggests tenants were informed after the rise had already been implemented. Which concurs with the recollections of Murphy, Sam and Alex who all say they were not informed of the increase.
Then in 2014 THT informed the tenants that the rate would be doubled again to 8p/kWh. The rise, THT told The Meteor, was due to the assessment of another independent expert. This compares to an average gas price of 3.6p/kWh for the North West in 2017.
During tenant management takeover discussions between THT and SHTRA, the 8p/kWh gas price became an issue and the tenants wanted to know why the price was set so high, and wanted an independent expert to assess if the price was fair. Murphy, then chair of the SHTRA, said THT didn’t know why the price was set to so high, and that the excuse they gave was, “that the guy who decided the price has left the company, and they didn’t know why they were charging it.”
Knowledge of successful communal heating systems leads London to blame those who commission, fit, design and run certain systems:
“Communal, or district, heating systems in this country are frequently designed, installed, and maintained by people without the necessary know-how, and many residents pay huge bills while never being certain when they’ll have hot water. It doesn’t have to be that way: in Europe, and on other UK estates, district heating really does offer low bills and reliable, low-carbon heating.”
Comments made to Sam by workers repairing the communal heating system concur with London’s experience of this type of heating. Sam believes “none of the radiators are off sufficient enough size for the rooms” and went on to describe how the units that transfer heat from the communal heating circuit to the heating circuit inside the flat:
“The heat exchangers are forever going. They have been in and had to do everybody’s and flush them. The guys that have come in have said, ‘I don’t even know why they have put this type of unit in, because it is just crap’. At the end of the day it is not fit for purpose but they [THT] are still banging on that it is.”
Alex also recalls the heat exchangers being drained, which eventually solved the two problem of her heating system making loud banging noises from the cupboard in which it was situated, and the radiators when on full being cold enough to comfortably leave your hand pressed against it. Referring to the communal boilers that were fitted as part of the new system, Alex said:
“When they originally put them in they said they said they would never break down and we would always have heating and hot water and it wouldn’t be a problem. I think within about six weeks half of the building, I am saying half… we had no heating, so we rang them up and they came out and fixed it , and that’s how it continued for quite a long time.”
The heating has improved after the extensive repairs, says Alex, but there are still issues with it, “every now and again we do have a little bit of a blip” which leaves uncertainty about its future behaviour, “until we put it on again this winter I don’t really know”.
Fire safety compromised
Stretford House tenants plagued with a dysfunctional and expensive heating system, also discovered to their shock that work done to fit the system had compromised the fire safety of the building. These unpleasant revelations came to light post Grenfell when Murphy, who is an ex firefighter and fire safety officer, looked at the risk assessment for the building and found serious problems with it; a story previously reported on in The Meteor. A subsequent inspection by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service found multiple breaches of compartmentation caused by the work to fit the heating system. Compartmentation is an essential form of fire protection design, particularly in high rise buildings, that aims to contain and slow down the spread of fire. After the fire safety issues were raised THT appointed a walking fire warden at night to improve fire safety and ease residents concerns.
Energy charges reduced and partial refund payed
With some residents at Stretford House reporting that they were paying double the amount for their energy bills compared to neighbours in surrounding streets, the SHTRA decided to take action. Formal complaints were lodged with THT, and local MP Kate Green was informed of the issue and attended meetings between SHTRA and THT over the issue. Eventually THT agreed to bring in an external independent investigator to look at the issue, who found that THTs 8p/kWh charge for energy was to high.
Coming as a major relief to the financial worries of Stretford House tenants THT dropped the price 51% to 3.9p/kWh on the 18 January 2018, and said they would backdate the refund of the overpayments to 1 January 2017. That still leaves at least two years of overpayments to be refunded if the rise to 8p/kWh was late in 2014 or closer to three years if the rise was early in 2014. THT were asked for the exact date of the rise in 2014 but did not answer that question. Murphy and Sam believe the date of the increase was before 2014 but don’t have any documentary evidence to prove it. Trafford Housing Trust did respond to a question regarding whether they planned to refund tenants for the full period of overpayment, and stated that their charges for gas include maintenance costs, VAT and collection of payments:
“We are now doing a review to assess whether any further rebate is due, and this is scheduled to be completed in October. We remain committed to delivering value for money services for our customers.”
Most residents received between £250 and £350 refund for the year covered by the refund, Murphy says after talking to other residents in the block. They are left wondering whether they will get the full refund. Murphy suspects the cost to THT may be holding them back from paying the full amount. Stretford House, with 132 flats, is just one of six tower blocks fitted with a communal heating system, the rest of the blocks have approximately 84 flats in each. This gives an estimated total number of flats at 552, so each year refunded at an average price of £300 would cost THT around £165,600 for each of those years.
Sam* is not the real name of the tenant, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions for her tenancy.
Alex* is not the real name of the tenant, who wished to remain anonymous.
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