Our Sutton reporter, CARL SHILTON, on a saga of deceit and disservice
Sutton Council and its Liberal Democrat councillors have found themselves in hot water over SDEN, the district heating network which was supposed to provide cheap, “green” energy pumped all the way from the Beddington incinerator.
The council is estimated to have spent at least £30,000 in a legal battle to keep SDEN’s dodgy business model a strict secret, but after two years and two rulings against Sutton from the Information Commissioner, they abandoned their futile case just as a judge was about to order them to release all the information.
SDEN – Sutton Decentralised Energy Network – has a monopoly over the supply of heating and hot water to around 850 properties on the Barratt-built New Mill Quarter estate in Hackbridge. There’s no choice of supplier, never any opportunity for residents to “switch”.
SDEN advertised itself to incoming residents as offering “price parity with the cost of gas in an individual boiler from other energy suppliers”.
Documents circulated by SDEN have carried the “Heat Trust” logo with the motto “Heating you can trust”.
It did not take long after the first residents moved into their new homes in 2018 for them to discover that just across the road, neighbours who were not locked-in to a heating deal with the council-backed SDEN could use twice the heating and hot water and still had much smaller bills.
NMQ residents also found that, despite the branding on the SDEN bumpf, the heating network is not a member of the Heat Trust. Given that Heat Trust say their organisation sets “a common standard in the quality and level of customer service that heat suppliers should provide”, that probably ought not have come as a complete surprise.
And then in April this year, SDEN announced an “annual” review of pricing, the first since residents started moving into their new homes. SDEN hiked the annual standing charge to around £350, with a price increase four times that of the inflation rate. The price increase applies even if you don’t use any SDEN heating or water, and affects all NMQ residents, many in affordable housing and already reeling from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, job losses and furlough pay reductions.
Council documents originally went so far as to say that residents would see savings on their heating bills, and that the scheme would reduce fuel poverty. This was used to justify the council’s borrowings to pay for the controversial project, which also provided some ecological “cover” for the Viridor incinerator at Beddington Lane. To date, not a single unit of energy generated by the polluting incinerator has been used to heat any of the NMQ homes, which are supplied with heating from gas-fuelled boilers.
“The latest letter from our LibDem ward councillors, sent to residents following SDEN’s annual pricing review, claimed the credit for the changes. It was an insult,” said Oliver Williams, the treasurer of the New Mill Quarter Residents’ Association.
“Residents are now faced with increased monthly bills over the summer period, including those in affordable housing and key workers.”
The NMQ Residents’ Association has, in its short existence, found itself fighting a constant battle with the LibDem councillors for their Wandle Valley ward – “Bogus” Ben Andrew, Vincent Gilligan and Hannah Zuchowska – just to get advice and support.
Instead of help from their elected representatives, residents have encountered silence and dissembling, resulting in Andrew being banned from the estate after he delivered LibDem leaflets that made demonstrably false claims in favour of SDEN.
Andrew has even told a meeting with residents that the sky-high SDEN prices are simply their “opinions”.
Having received more than 400 complaints from residents, the taxpayer-funded project is now in serious trouble, and with it the LibDems who have run Sutton as a one-party state for 30 years.
As one angry NMQ resident told Inside Sutton, “The Liberal Democrats are continuing to stick their heads in the sand over what is at least a case of serious misrepresentation, at worst a serious case of fraud.
“Me and my fellow residents feel that councillors and the council leadership are complicit in this. It is clear that there is something wildly wrong.”
There”s a real possibility that NMQRA will resort to court action against SDEN and the council in order to lift the burden of the excessive charges that they have had forced upon them. “If this was once negligence, it has now transformed into something more sinister, with the fallout hitting local councillors and council leaders alike,” the resident said.
With elected councillors acting to protect the interests of what is a private company, over their responsibilities to the residents they are supposed to represent, the control of the Sutton council by the LibDems is under real threat.
Last December, Tom Brake – a long-standing apologist for the incinerator project and SDEN – lost his Carshalton and Wallington in the General Election, with Elliot Colburn winning back a seat the Conservatives have not held since 1997. Colburn has already started asking questions in the House of Commons over SDEN’s high prices and the fuel poverty it has caused.
The NMQRA conducted a survey of their members. The responses they received were almost entirely angry and worrying.
“At no point has it come across that our elected representatives have our concerns and welfare as a priority,” one NMQ resident said. “They have put more public effort and dialogue towards defending SDEN than they have engaging with the residents and taking on the fight for what is fair and just.
“They are supporting an unregulated energy supply with a monopoly and opaque pricing rather than key workers, people in affordable housing and those facing fuel poverty.”
Other residents said that they are “genuinely concerned about whether I can afford to heat myself in winter”, while another said, “I feel bullied and intimidated by both our local councillors and the Liberal Democrats”.
But most damaging of all to SDEN’s credibility as a heat supplier has been the outcome of a dogged two-year campaign waged by Nick Mattey, the independent councillor for Beddington North.
Suspicious over the monopoly status of SDEN as a supplier to New Mill Quarter, and sceptical about the council’s public statements about the costs of the heating, Mattey demanded that the heating network’s business plan should be placed in the public domain. Sutton Council refused, even after being ordered to release the documents by the Information Commissioner. Twice.
Then just before the end of May, Sutton Council game of bluff came to an end when they dropped a costly legal appeal over SDEN pricing, effectively admitting that the council had acted illegally in refusing to divulge the company’s financial model review.
A few days later, at the start of this month, after squandering tens of thousands of pounds on a futile defence against transparency and public accountability, Sutton Council reluctantly produced the review – a copy of which can be seen in pdf format here.
Meanwhile, Amanda Cherrington, the managing director of SDEN, despite regularly being seen swanning around Sutton with her Louis Vuitton handbags, appears to have gone AWOL from her office, with council staff picking up emails sent to the private company – prompting residents to file further complaints, this time over breaches of data protection laws.
Not that everyone who has dealt with SDEN is unhappy.
Despite Cherrington claiming that SDEN makes only a “modest profit”, Simon Woodward, the heating network consultant who was involved as a director of SDEN when it was first established, is understood to have managed to walk away with a handy six-figure fee for his bodged work.
A case of trebling heating bills and trebles all-round!
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