Southwark’s housing scrutiny commission has asked for a prompt review and simplification of the compensation process for estate residents who have suffered years of “harrowing” heating outages. 

The HSC made a series of recommendations following its review of district heating systems and heat networks, which was noted by cabinet at a meeting on Tuesday (October 20).  

Council estates in the borough have suffered heating outages for years, often during winter months. 

The district heating system on the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth had to be shut down in January when the boilers – just fitted the year before – broke down after silt sifted in via cracks in the pipes. 

Residents are often forced to boil kettles to access hot water and use electric heaters for warmth.   

Hundreds of residents on the Brandon Estate in Camberwell were previously left without heating and hot water for the entire winter. 

The commission spoke to tenants associations, councillors, the cabinet member for housing, and residents to inform the review, which included case studies from both estates. 

The Aylesbury’s district heating system is the council’s biggest, originally serving 2,400 flats when the estate was first built – though this is down to just over 700 as the estate is being decanted for regeneration.  

Referring to the outages in January, when temporary boilers replaced the damaged ones, the HSC said: “Residents told us of their often harrowing experience of being left without heating and cold water for prolonged periods during cold weather.  

“Members of the commission put on record their anger and, in the case of one member, his ‘shame’ at what residents has been put through as a result of the council’s failure to put in place a reliable system for residents. 

“The cabinet member, who was also in attendance, repeated his apology to residents and gave a commitment to address these issues.” 

Both Cllr Fleming and several members of the commission noted that such a use of resources without a positive outcome is incredible and should never be allowed to happen again

The commission spoke with Faraday ward Councillor Paul Fleming, who said the £10 million spent on the issues “apparently still failed to put in place a reliable system”.  

“In his own words ‘we’ve thrown money at the problem’. 

“Both Cllr Fleming and several members of the commission noted that such a use of resources without a positive outcome is incredible and should never be allowed to happen again,” according to the report.  

The HSC said Cllr Flemming “conceded that the wider issue is inherently linked to regeneration”.  

Another issue is the amount of money residents have spent trying to remedy the problems, such as on electric heaters and bills, and that the compensation scheme is described as “woefully inadequate”.  

“They told us the process was cumbersome and bureaucratic,” according to the HSC. 

The Brandon Estate has been plagued by similar issues, though major works refurbishing plant rooms costing around £900,000 have since been completed. 

Councillor James Caldwell told the commission that there was a “feeling of resignation and despair” about the constant outages.  

“He explained that the outages seemed to happen every winter and seemed to be getting worse.  

“He noted that the most serious outage in recent years was that which started in November 2018 and lasted the entirety of the winter,” according to the report.  

For that outage residents were given blanket compensation of £253 each. 

As well as a simplified compensation process, the commission has recommended better communication with residents and addressing noise pollution from the district heating systems, which is leaving residents sleep deprived.  

The HSC also recommended encouraging the use of South East London Combined Heat and Power (SELCHP), a waste incinerator plant that, through its processing, provides electricity and heating. 

“To strengthen this, HSC recommends that the cabinet investigates the possibility of creating a ‘local development order’ which would mean the default energy solution to be a SELCHP connection unless it is practically unfeasible,” according to the report.  

It also suggested that council investigates a ‘sinking fund’ to pay for heating system works, which could be collected in small amounts from residents’ heating bills, to prevent leaseholders being slapped with huge one-off payments.  

A cabinet response is expected to be provided at the next meeting.