Residents battling high heating bills never flinched when they got the chance to stare ScottishPower’s UK retail CEO in the eye this week.
Due to the success of Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages – Ending Fuel Poverty campaign started by Claire Mackie and Fiona Gordon, the energy giant’s chief executive officer Andrew Ward actually attended a public meeting in the chambers of Falkirk Council on Monday night.
Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages extended an open invitation to ScottishPower and Falkirk Council to meet with householders face to face and try to explain why their bills are so extraordinarily high – some report it is costing them up to £150 a week – and why their THERMAflow wet heating system is so ineffective.
Mr Ward said: “Thank you to Claire and Fiona, we wouldn’t have been aware of these issues without them and that’s a sad admission. Last week was the first time this had come across my desk – our customer service has been terrible but we are trying to make amends.
“The reality is prices have increased but it’s just astronomical what you are actually consuming in your homes. I’m responsible for this company so we need to look at this – you have a consumption issue and a potential metering issue which may result in a billing issue.
“If there is a problem with the billing then we need to sort it. We don’t have anywhere else in the UK that has such a small nucleus of people who have such a high consumption.
“We are taking this extremely seriously.”
The Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages campaign passed Mr Ward a list of residents having problems with their electricity bills and he said the company would be getting its community team to help them.
Mr Ward said ScottishPower had “ring-fenced” staff to specifically deal only with Falkirk villagers complaints and queries via a designated phone number which was made available to residents on the night.
A ScottishPower “team” was also present on the evening to answer questions on a one-to-one basis.
He also said ScottishPower would put money on pre paid customers’ keys every single week until the firm can “get to the bottom of what’s going on” with the high bills.
His announcement of a new tariff designed to help “high consumers” save £450 a year was not met with too much enthusiasm.
Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages co-founder Claire Mackie stated she was “insulted” by Mr Ward’s new tariff offer.
She said: “We don’t accept what Scottish Power has put forward here tonight and we will continue to fight.”
Addressing Mr Ward directly, another householder said: “You have the power in your hands to solve this problem for the majority of people here. You yourself have the opportunity to resolve a really bad problem that your company has caused and turn it right around.”
One householder felt Mr Ward and ScottishPower should take the blame for practically doubling the price of supplying electricity in 12 months – from around 8p a unit to around 15.8p per unit.
The difficulty in changing to another energy provider was also brought up.
Mr Ward said the only reasons ScottishPower would prevent customers from leaving was if they owed the company money, or if the new energy provider had not requested the correct information from ScottishPower.
Mr Ward heard for himself that people were facing the almost impossible choice between heating their house or feeding their families.
One resident said ScottishPower was “making people ill” and “causing stress”, the villages were a highly profitable “cash cow” for the company to exploit and the “shameful and greedy” firm was “attacking the most vulnerable in society”.
Falkirk Council has vowed to look in to the cause of residents’ heating woes and find the right solution.
Ken Gillespie, Falkirk Council’s head of housing and communities, said the local authority had drafted in an independent firm – City Technical Services – to assess the heating systems and informative workshops and roadshows were going to be held in the near future.
A resident said: “There’s only one issue – the heating costs too much to run and there’s no one in this room who can afford to run it. From the day you put that heating in it’s been too expensive and it does not work.”
Mr Gillespie responded: “I will not give you quick answers on this issue tonight, but myself and my teams are going to go out and look at things. We shouldn’t hear about people having to decide whether to put their heating on or feed their families.
“I don’t want to be here in a year’s time and say we tried that and it didn’t work. We are trying our best to get to the right answer.
“How can small things help in a big way? You have the right to get the best for your properties and I’m doing as much as I can as quickly as I can.”
The Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages campaign, which has a petition containing over 1000 signatures, kicked off its drive to have residents’ concerns addressed with a meeting at Slamannan Bowling Club last month.
Their main problems seemed to stem from ScottishPower’s rising costs and the THERMAflow heating system which thee council recommended be installed in their homes.
According to the THERMAflow website, the heating system, which has been installed in homes in the area since 2010, is “leading the way in reducing fuel poverty”.