It must not be residents who pay for others’ failures. Nor should they have to go as far as Tribunal to get simple justice or a heating system that works.
Southwark Council has been ordered to refund money paid for ineffective District Heating, in a pathbreaking decision from the First Tier Tribunal.
The Tribunal, which determines leasehold disputes, ruled that Mr Murat Kaya owed only one quarter of what had been demanded of him. Three quarters of what he had paid must be returned. Such victories are rare for District Heating users.
Mr Kaya, a leaseholder in Eugene Cotter House, sought a refund on nearly £4,000 demanded from him and from every leaseholder in this council block.
Mr Kaya told the Tribunal that before a communal boiler was replaced in 2016, the system worked fine. Since then, there have been constant stoppages of both heat and hot water - 13 stoppages between mid November 2019 and 30 January 2020 - and equally constant visits from engineers.
Leaseholders were expected to pay for all of this ineffective maintenance work, as well as financing the new boiler itself.
Both leaseholders and tenants have long questioned why they are having to live with such an intermittent service, which plays havoc with their families’ lives and health. Repeated complaints and a petition have failed to bring any improvement.
Celebrating his victory, Mr Kaya said: “The applicants are me and my next door neighbour only, but now I'm sure lots of other people will follow.
"We should not be expected to pay for this 2016 replacement, or for maintenance that fails to maintain an acceptable level of service.”
Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) and Fuel Poverty Action (FPA), who both supported Mr Kaya, have been working to ensure that council tenants are able to keep warm despite the endemic problems with Southwark’s ageing and ailing heat networks.
Ruth London of Fuel Poverty action said: “Mr Kaya’s achievement is all the more important because such judgments are rare. Not many have the courage, tenacity and resources to take on their landlords and suppliers.
"District Heating can be good, for costs and carbon emissions, but customers cannot switch, and this rapidly expanding industry is still unregulated. Users are at the mercy of suppliers when prices and capital levies are outrageously high, or when the heat and hot water constantly break down, or both.
"With landlords and suppliers much better equipped and funded to pursue legal cases, it is hard for residents to get justice even when their case is very strong.”
Mr Kaya had kept careful documentation, and secured the support of legal counsel: Josef Cannon of Cornerstone Barristers, acting pro bono. Southwark Council, in contrast, was singularly unprepared, and unable to back up their arguments, as noted in the Tribunal’s unequivocal judgment (see paras 59-69). The Local Authority argued that they had fulfilled their obligations, since they always sent a repairman when the system broke down yet again. This logic was roundly rejected.
Mr Cannon said: "The key to this result was the meticulous record-keeping that Mr Kaya maintained over a long period. It allowed us to prove to the tribunal, in a way that could not be gainsaid, quite how intermittent and unsatisfactory the service had been.
Residents who experience problems with District Heating systems should attempt to keep diaries of the outages and, if they are even half as careful as Mr Kaya, they will be well-placed to prove their case."
After a hearing held on 27 February, there was a long wait for the judgment, and then for the deadline to expire for a possible appeal. Mr Kaya is now secure in his stunning and unusual win, which will have wide implications for district heating users elsewhere.
Ms London added: “This hearing is a critical moment in a series of similar battles over District Heating that have been taking place around Southwark and nationally.
"It must not be residents who pay for others’ failures. Nor should they have to go as far as Tribunal to get simple justice or a heating system that works.”
Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from Fuel Poverty Action. Image: Natasha Quarmby/Fields of Light Photography