London council halts forced installation of prepayment meters

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A council in London has halted the forced installation of prepayment meters after outrage from residents concerned they would be cut off from energy supplies this winter.

Residents of Hathersage Court in north London had expressed “shock” after learning this month they would be moved on to prepayment tariffs as part of a nationwide drive to enable people using communal heating systems to pay for their personal energy usage.

Residents of the block, which has 69 flats, had complained that their energy costs could rise sharply after the meters were switched on, which was due to take place on 23 January.

Households on prepayment meters typically pay more for their energy – a particular concern as high wholesale gas prices have pushed up bills.

Residents believed they would be billed monthly via the meters but would have instead had to pay for gas and electricity in advance, raising the prospect of being cut off if their funds ran low. Around half of the meters had been installed.

However, after being contacted by the Guardian, Islington council apologised and paused the scheme while options are discussed with residents. The council told residents that the pause would “provide an opportunity to discuss the different billing options available”.

The move comes against the backdrop of growing concern over the increasing use of prepayment meters, with households regularly left without power, unable to top up. MPs have called for a ban on energy suppliers using court warrants to gain entry to people’s homes to install prepayment meters.

Councils and landlords across the country are moving buildings which use communal heat networks on to smart meters, with the aim of reducing carbon emissions and bills by encouraging people to examine their energy use more closely.

At Hathersage Court, residents pay a fixed rate for their energy but were initially encouraged by the prospect of potentially reducing the cost by only paying for their own usage.

Paula Beattie, who has lived in the housing block for eight years, had urged the council to “freeze plans for prepayment meters, not residents”. She said: “It was a complete shock to find we were being moved on to prepayment. I encouraged others to switch because it would be fairer to pay for what we use rather than a set sum. Then the council told us this month it would be prepay.

“I’m concerned it will be extremely costly and I’ll be cut off automatically once I go over the £5 emergency money.”

Beattie, a professional gardener who suffers from asthma, said: “We have lot of people who have long-term health problems, disabilities, young children. The flats are concrete so they’re extremely cold and get damp and mould.”

Residents calculated that, based on Ofgem average usage rates for one bedroom flats, they would pay £480 a year more than a typical flat dweller for usage, and nearly £70 more in standing charges. Larger flats would pay £720 more than the average in Great Britain, they said. The installations have been handled by heat network specialist Switch 2.

Una O’Halloran, Islington council’s executive member for Homes and Communities, said the council had informed residents of the decision to move to prepay last summer but also apologised and pledged to improve communications.

She said: “The government is making all councils install heat meters in homes connected to communal heating systems that meet certain criteria. There are two options available – prepayment and monthly credit billing.

“We have listened to residents’ concerns at Hathersage Court about the way they pay for their heat in future, and while we discuss these options with them, we are pausing the implementation of the scheme so we can fully address any concerns.”

Separately, the Guardian reported this week that residents of flats with communal heating systems could mount a legal claim against their network operators after experiencing rises of up to 700% in their bills.