CARL SHILTON, our Sutton correspondent, reports on a badly-organised meeting – part Muppet Show, part Orwell’s 1984 – at which shocked residents saw their new ‘luxury’ homes reduced in value potentially by tens of thousands of pounds because of a council-owned misfiring energy network
At what was described as a “shambolic” meeting last night, New Mill Quarter residents who have suffered 13 power outages in the last year were told by Sutton Council’s deputy leader that because their faulty heating network could not deliver on its promises to be “100 per cent resilient”, the claim would simply be erased from a website.
It means that hundreds of homeowners living on the development in Hackbridge now have well-founded concerns that tens of thousands of pounds could be wiped from the value of their properties because of the failings of the council-owned SDEN heating network. It has even been suggested that the problems with the heating system have made some of the new homes unsellable.
Despite complaints from the residents’ association and Elliot Colburn, the area’s MP, the emergency meeting last night went ahead and was chaired by Jayne McCoy, the LibDem-controlled council’s deputy leader and the cabinet member who is actually responsible for the ill-conceived and badly implemented heating system installed at New Mill Quarter.
New Mill Quarter is a development by Barratts with planning permission for around 800 homes, of which more than half have been built. Some of the “luxury” homes, which came on to the market in 2018, were sold for as much as £600,000. Prospective buyers were promised cheap and “green” energy which would “end fuel poverty”, with hot water supposedly generated from the waste incinerator at Beddington.
But the incinerator has never provided any hot water to New Mill Quarter, and residents have seen their heating bills soar by 40 per cent above what they expected, incurring charges far above the market rate and, in some cases, unaffordably so.
On top of that, they have had to endure 13 outages since January 2020, two of which also required calls out for the London Fire Brigade and has left residents in fear for their families’ safety.
And last night, when Stephen Thompson, the managing director of Barratt London, and Amanda Cherrington, the MD of SDEN, told the Zoom meeting that they could not guarantee that there won’t be any more power outages, residents were understandably shocked, and furious.
Most had bought their homes after reading on the SDEN website that the heating and hot water would be provided “24/7”.
It had, SDEN boasted in their publicity bumpf, “100 per cent resilience”.
Now, collectively, resident s were being offered a paltry 54 quid (notably by Barratts, and not from suppliers SDEN) for more than a year’s worth of disruption and real worries.
“Customers seemed to be told that they should have read the small print and realised that ‘100 per cent resilience’ did not mean 100 per cent resilience,” Tory MP Colburn observed.
When challenged by Grace Platt, an NMQ resident, about whether Barratts would be liable for her home’s reduced property values, the best that Thompson could offer was that it had all been some kind of misunderstanding.
“No one can guarantee supply,” Thompson told the meeting.
“How can you ‘misinfer’ 100 per cent resilience, Mr Thompson?” a clearly exasperated Platt asked.
“I can’t answer that question, I’m afraid,” was the Barratts boss’s best offer.
Colburn highlighted that he had attended meetings last year when Cherrington and SDEN had promised that the issues with the heating system were “behind them”. Now, Cherrington repeatedly told the meeting that, “We can’t actually guarantee that there won’t be any more outages.”
It was, Cherrington told the meeting, “Wholly unacceptable.”
But attempts by the council and their heating company to deflect blame to housebuilders Barratts, said Sheldon Vestey were wrong: “You’ve been caught out, reneging on it,” said Vestey, the chair of the NMQ residents’ association. “It’s the council and it’s SDEN…”
McCoy, the meeting chair, muted the feed from Vestey at this point.
Because of the nature of virtual meetings, McCoy was seen in a room where on a wall behind her there was a picture of an ostrich. The only surprise was that the ostrich had not buried its head in the sand, because that is exactly what McCoy was endeavouring to do.
Another resident was clearly hugely concerned by this massive change in the terms of service for his home. He accused SDEN of being “in breach of contract with 400 people”.
McCoy chipped in with, “That’s a relevant point.”
McCoy then offered an Orwellian solution to the problems of SDEN’s and Sutton Council’s creation: act like they had never made the promises after all.
“Can we amend the website on that point?” McCoy said, sounding just a little bit desperate.
“Obviously, we don’t want people to get the wrong impression,” said the LibDem councillor whose council had been deliberately giving thousands of people the wrong impression for the past four or five years.
Even one of McCoy’s fellow Liberal Democrat councillors suggested to the meeting that £54 as compensation for the residents after the 13 outages was inadequate. “It is not sufficient,” said Ben Andrew, perhaps aware that if he ever wants to be re-elected, he will need at least some votes from New Mill Quarter residents.
In an effort to provide what Cherrington described as “a greater degree of resilience”, work is being done to fasttrack connecting the housing development to the Viridor site at Beddington, so that the on-site boilers revert to the role for which they were designed, as back-up.
It is thought, however, that to heat the water for the homes, they may use generators that are fired by gas from the nearby landfill, rather than the incinerator itself. Such a changeover to an untried system is unlikely to go smoothly.
And because NMQ remains what Cherrington described as “a building site”, there can be no guarantees that there won’t be any more outages as long as the builders are on site.
Barratts themselves are clearly feeling the heat over their commercial arrangements with SDEN and Sutton. They are still building the remaining 350-or-so homes at New Mill Quarter, with a prospective property value of £120million. That will be utterly compromised if new prospective buyers cannot be assured that the monopolistic heating system from SDEN which Barratts have signed up to does not work reliably.
Colburn tweeted after the meeting that, after receiving the assurances of “increased reliability” offered by the shift to the Viridor piped water network: “We will hold them to that.”
“The 24/7, 100 per cent resilience promise in the marketing for NMQ and SDEN has now been dropped, with warnings that no further disruption could not be guaranteed, despite previous assurances that the problems had been resolved.
“Rather than pursue greater reliability, the council’s answer appeared to be to remove mention the promise of 24/7, 100 per cent resilience from the website.
“Residents are being left in the dark about whether they are still being charged for their heating and hot water when outages occur, with vague answers appearing to suggest that they are.
“The council is going to try and ‘better explain’ how it came to the high costs that residents are paying, rather than actually look into the evidence supplied by residents suggesting that the pricing is not competitive.”
Colburn won the Carshalton and Wallington seat in December 2019, ousting LibDem and long-term incinerator apologist Tom Brake. The scrutiny and questioning brought by Colburn is not something which had been encountered much by Sutton Council’s LibDems until relatively recently.
“The council, who wholly own SDEN and who are supposed to hold them to account via the shareholdings board, are clearly attempting to distance themselves from this disaster, claiming to have concerns with an issue that they are ultimately accountable for,” said the Tory MP.
And Vestey said, “The council seem to have failed to understand that around £200million of property has already been purchased based on their statements.
“They failed to acknowledge where the liability lies for that.
“If a resident is unable to sell their property, which they might have bought only recently at a value of £600,000, will the council reimburse them for that lost value? If they do manage to sell but at a lower rate, will the council compensate them?”
The class-action legal challenges cannot be very far away.
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