Failing solar panel scheme described as ‘car crash’

London Assembly committee probes domestic solar scheme that left customers out of pocket, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Solar panel installation (credit Bill Mead via Unsplash)
credit Bill Mead via Unsplash

Officials at City Hall faced a grilling this week over a scandal-hit solar panel scheme dubbed a “customer service car crash”.

In a question and answer session, the London Assembly’s environment committee quizzed two of City Hall’s top officers about the organisation’s Solar Together “group buying” programme.

The scheme was meant to offer “significant savings” on the cost of roof panels for Londoners wanting to convert their homes to renewable energy, but around 1,000 residents are thought to be out of pocket after applying to it.

A sub-contractor, Green Energy Together UK (GET-UK), which was meant to install the panels, was suspended in March by iChoosr, the firm appointed by City Hall to run the scheme.

This came after GET-UK, based in Ware, Hertfordshire, was stripped of its trade body accreditation, after an Evening Standard investigation.

A number of customers who were supposed to have their panels installed by GET-UK were inconvenienced by delays as the company repeatedly failed to turn up to conduct surveys of their properties, despite those customers already having paid a £150 deposit.

At a London Assembly environment committee meeting on Wednesday (17th), an update on the situation was given by Catherine Barber, City Hall’s assistant director for the environment and energy.

She said her team were continuing to work “with the absolute priority of protecting customers”, by “putting pressure” on iChoosr, and through them on GET-UK, to make every customer aware of GET-UK’s suspension from the scheme.

Conservative assembly member Tony Devenish said the scheme had been a “customer service car crash” and “a mess”, while his party colleague Emma Best asked whether City Hall was concerned about a loss of public trust as a result of the scandal.

Catherine replied: “We accept that this is damaging for our reputation for delivering schemes, and for customers who’ve experienced this, or for people reading about it in the media.

“We’re doing our best to transfer people – if they accept that offer – on to alternative installers, so they can get what they signed up for in the first place, or if they don’t want to do that, to get their money back.”

Earlier in the meeting, Catherine had said there was a “need to learn lessons from what has not gone correctly”, but she stressed that GET-UK was just one installer out of six used in the scheme, and that the programme had saved Londoners’ money on solar installations, while boosting the number of panels across the capital “by an order of magnitude”.

Asked by Emma whether City Hall expected GET-UK to go bust, Austin Entonu, City Hall’s head of energy, said: “I would not be surprised if that happens.”

But he said that in that event, insurance provided by the Home Insulation and Energy Systems (HIES) quality assured contractors scheme will kick in. City Hall has previously said that “most” of the affected contracts were registered with HEIS.

One customer who signed up to Solar Together, Jan Gooding, an executive coach from Balham, told how she had been unable to recover the £150 deposit and £2,303 down-payment, equivalent to 25% of the expected installation cost, that she had paid to GET-UK more than a year ago.

She said: “I’m so desperate. I’m at my wits’ end. I don’t know where to turn.”

Jan had felt reassured to use the scheme because it was endorsed by the Mayor of London. “I thought it was something I could trust,” she said.

“I did this thinking the mayor was overseeing this, and this was a proper scheme. It’s over a year now and I want my money back. I’ve found myself high and dry. There will be people much worse off than me.”

GET-UK has previously said: “Covid had a devastating impact on our supply chains and our cashflow as a business.

“The knock-on effect of this meant that our customer service simply wasn’t as good as it should have been and we apologise to everyone affected.

“But we have worked hard, along with our third-party partners, for several months to make things better and resolve any outstanding issues customers have.”

An iChoosr spokesman has meanwhile said the company has been working closely with GET-UK to ensure lessons are learned and improvements made.

Mayor Sadiq Khan launched the scheme in 2017, promising discounts if many Londoners signed up. To date, 17,000 solar panels across 2,000 London homes have been installed.

Emma, deputy leader of the City Hall Conservatives, added: “Sadiq Khan’s solar scandal has been rumbling on for far too long and it is customers who are paying the price.”

A spokesperson for Khan said: “The mayor is appalled on behalf of those Londoners who have faced poor levels of service through Solar Together.

“The mayor’s team have been working to ensure Solar Together customers’ deposits are protected, customers are transferred to other installers and any money that has already been paid can be recovered.”

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