Rochelle Dickson, Head of Customer Services at SSE Enterprise Utilities, sets out the case for adoption of the existing Heat Trust practices as the new framework for heat network regulation.
Claire Perry, Minister of State for BEIS, has publicly stated that the UK heat network market will need to: ‘transform on the basis of the highest standards and guarantees for consumers.’
SSE Enterprise Utilities (SSEEU) currently owns and operates 13 heat networks, serving in the region of 8,000 end users. When these existing networks are fully built out, we expect to have between 15,000 and 20,000 heat network customers. So we have a significant stake in the future development of regulation in the UK’s Heat Networks market.
As a leading heat networks Energy Services Company (“ESCo”) we advocate that successful delivery of schemes is best achieved by having a continuous role throughout their evolution. From contract development, design, construction and commissioning, through into operation, asset management and customer services, it is imperative to many performance factors that an expert in all these fields stays with the project. Given our decade-long practical experience of how all these components combine, and the almost singular importance of customer satisfaction, we are very pleased to see recent pushes from the minister of state for BEIS, Claire Perry, advocating the benefits of Heat Trust membership.
We recognise that heat networks form an important part of the Government’s plan to reduce carbon from heating and believe heat networks offer customers an efficient and reliable supply of heat and hot water, at prices which are the same or lower than other potential sources of supply (such as gas and electricity) and with comparable service standards.
SSEEU remains committed to providing our heat network customers with an excellent customer service regime and we have created a bespoke Customer Service team to ensure this happens. We conduct regular customer satisfaction and net promoter score surveys to monitor and improve aspects of our service that matter most to customers. We were also a founder member of Heat Trust, and we continue to work with them to further develop these guidelines and protocols.
Being members of the Heat Trust scheme, means we are independently audited, our performance is captured by the necessary feedback loops needed to drive up standards. We have recently received an audit report for one of our schemes and have scored 100% for Information and over 96% for Service. Included in the report are some areas for improvement which we welcome, as our drive is to be the leading heat network supplier in the sector.
Another key benefit of Heat Trust is that it provides customers with a route to recourse through the Energy Ombudsman, if they feel that a complaint hasn’t been handled to their satisfaction by their heat supplier. Heat Trust membership automatically provides this direct access route for customers without separate registration.
Whilst Heat Trust has made great strides in providing protection for a large number of heat customers, wider regulation in this area is on the way and is important. It has the potential to drive investor confidence and provide enhanced customer protection, but it mustn’t be onerous; this could stifle innovation at this crucial time for heat networks, hinder smaller operators and is a risk for new entrants, as well as historic schemes.
SSE is closely engaged in the process to develop this new regulatory framework. We think that Heat Trust principles form an excellent basis to develop the customer protection aspects of the new regime. In brief, we think some of the key principles should be as follows:
- We support moves to develop ‘standard form’ connection and supply agreement templates for all types of customer, including non-domestic customers.
- We think there should always be transparency of supply terms and conditions, setting customer’s expectations in relation to service and ultimately a form of recourse for all customers.
- We would recommend that retrospective standards focus on those aspects most closely related to a positive customer experience (many of which were identified in the CMA market study) such as reliability of service, response times to outages, clarity and frequency of billing and other information, services for vulnerable customers and clarity on who is responsible for providing the service.
- We propose that, at the point of purchase and/or prior to moving into a new property, the developer (working with the provider of the heat networks) should be responsible for providing sufficient information to potential customers (be they tenants or owners) on the workings of the heat network.
We are looking forward to working with government and wider stakeholders to build on the good work of the Heat Trust to date to further enhance consumer protection under the new regulatory framework. We know it works, and works well, so we would very much concur with Claire Perry and her team to follow the lead given by the Heat Trust.