Both Sarah Bone (left) and Tamara Lyn-Grant said the surging energy bills were having a big impact on their budgets, leaving them to skip meals or consider asking friends and family for cash. Image: Supplied
Residents in Lambeth, South London, on heat networks have urged councillors to U-turn on a 350% service charge rise that they claim has seen some rack up thousands of pounds in rent arrears as they try to make ends meet.
Heat networks provide heating communally to tenants in blocks of flats and are intended to lead to lower bills. But prices paid by customers do not come under Ofgem’s price cap leaving tenants feeling the fallout from rising commercial prices. Tenants also do not have the choice to switch suppliers or turn off their heating.
The issue has affected tenants so deeply that they are struggling to pay bills, which combine energy costs and rent into one weekly payment, while some have even received letters warning they face eviction if they cannot keep up.
A Lambeth Council spokesperson told the Big Issue the council has “a responsibility to recover rent and service charges, in line with the tenancy agreements” and eviction will only be used as a “last resort.”
Kirsty Oliveira lives in Wedgwood House in Lambeth and saw her energy bills rise from £18.45 a week to £83.55 in April 2023 just as her rent went up by the maximum of 7%.
“We are fighting this because we believe it’s completely unfair. People that are on full benefits and get their rent paid by housing benefits are now in a huge arrears because of the heating hot water charges,” said Oliveira.
“They keep saying, ‘Oh you won’t be evicted,’ but yet they’re sending out notices of possession.”
Letters seen by the Big Issue show tenants received notices of possession from Lambeth Council while others received advice that they can end their tenancy if they can’t keep up with rent and energy bills.
In response, residents wrote to Lambeth Council on 12 January urging councillors to remove the threat of eviction. That call has been backed by London Tenants Federation and Fuel Poverty Action (FPA).
FPA’s Ruth London said: “Heat networks can be greener and more affordable than gas boilers. They are not supposed to be a disaster like this.”
Aida, who opted not to disclose her surname, received a possession notice for rent arrears of £1,100 and told the Big Issue her debts have grown to £1,400.
She said the strain of finding the cash and covering her rent and energy bills was having a huge impact on her health.
“It’s so stressful. I’ve even been to the GP because it’s affecting my sleeping. It’s causing me so much anxiety. I find it really difficult just doing daily chores or even going out. I’m also a single mum to a 16-year-old boy and I’m finding it really difficult for him. He sees me so upset,” said Aida, who has lived in Wedgwood House for 14 years and is reluctant to leave while her son is studying for his GCSEs.
“I keep on telling Lambeth I cannot afford it. They keep on saying to me that it’s my responsibility but I’m like, where do you want me to get the money from?
“If I was to pay £70 a week I would still have £160 a week spare, I said to them, ‘What do you want me to eat? How do you want me to feed my son?’
“If I was to be evicted with my son, what are they going to do, put me on the street? They’d have to offer me temporary accommodation which would cost them three times as much. I don’t know what the people at the top are thinking.”
Sarah Bone is also struggling to pay her bills despite working 30 hours a week as an assistant manager at a retail store.
Her £65 a week bills have meant she has had to find an extra £300 a month and that has left her in the position of eating or heating.
“I physically can’t do any more than the four days’ work due to having my son and child care. So with that in mind, like all my outgoings, the only place that I can really try and cut back is food shopping. So I’m having to stick to a really strict budget,” said Bone, who grew up in a home on the same block where she lives now.
“Before the new charges come in I would try and always shop for fresh things. Now, a lot of fresh foods have been replaced with freezer foods.
“I can really only take sandwiches to work. And that’s an eight hour shift. And you know, I’m just basically on a sandwich until I get home. I do stand on my feet all day.
“Sometimes I’m having to ask my mum to lend me money which, again, I don’t really want to be doing for a bill that’s coming out so it’s just been really, really hard. I have been thinking about going to a food bank.”
Tamara Lyn-Grant, a mother of three living at Wedgwood House, is facing difficulties too.
“I’m struggling. I’m feeling it. Let’s just say if it wasn’t for my mum then I don’t know what I would do because I’m struggling to put money on my prepaid meter. Luckily my mum will bring around food shopping because I haven’t been able to do grocery shopping for ages,” she said.
“I’m looking for work now but I’ve had to turn down an offer for a stocktaking job because of the hours that were given. My mum’s 74 so I couldn’t ask her to watch the kids because they’d want me to finish at 10 o’clock at night.
“I’m constantly in my overdraft. Apart from my mum, I don’t want to be reaching out to other people saying, ‘Oh, can I borrow some money this week just to be able to pay my heating?’
Lambeth Council said the long-term contracts kept bills low for residents on communal heating until they expired in 2022-23 when Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices soaring.
The council expects the charge for communal heating and hot water to fall by £25.11 a week on average in the coming year. However, most social housing tenants will face a 7.7% rent rise from April.
A Lambeth Council spokesperson said: “We know that the rises last year came at a particularly tough time for all our residents, and we provided an extra half a million pounds in funding for our most vulnerable tenants, who were already suffering the most from the cost of living crisis.
“We have a responsibility to recover rent and service charges, in line with the tenancy agreements. This means we have to enact the arrears recovery process where tenants are not paying off their rent or not making any payments towards their arrears. But we also make clear that possession proceedings will only ever be used as a last resort, where other interventions and support have proved unsuccessful.
“We understand that clearing arrears immediately or over a short period can be challenging, so we have been working with residents to create extended payment plans that align with their affordability and can be paid over a more extended period.”
Oliveira said: “The service charge is going down, the heating hot water charge is going down, which of course is great. That’s a big drop but that doesn’t alter the fact that many people are thousands of pounds in arrears already.
“They’re still chasing people for the arrears so it’s not going to wipe that off. The damage to people’s mental health has already been done.”
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