Outrage as Leicester Council hikes district heating prices by 76% – who or what is to blame?

District heating is used by some city councils to supply hot water and heating to city centre housing estates and large buildings (council offices, hospitals, courts, prisons, shopping centres) through hot water pipes running underground. In the East Midlands, both Nottingham and Leicester City Councils run district heating schemes which are promoted as ‘green’ alternatives to individual domestic households burning fossil fuels. Their greenness is debatable since some of these cogeneration (or combined-heat-power CHP) systems are associated with municipal incinerators (as in Nottingham), although others take heat produced as a by-product of small gas-fired electricity generators (as in Leicester).

But quite apart from the nasty pollution caused by incineration that is used to produce the heat in Nottingham’s scheme that has resulted in huge protest from Nottingham Against Incineration & Landfill, there seems to be a big problem with district heating in general. This is because they are run between the council and private contractors who are out make a profit and also involve negotiation with privatised gas and electricity companies. Not so different from most fuel companies these days, you might say? But when you live in a housing estate where your heating comes from district heating you can’t just ‘compare the market’ or shop around for a cheaper deal (if any exists) since you have no choice at all. Plus you have to buy electricity on top, and gas for cooking if you have a gas cooker, and as you can guess many low income households are already paying rip-off card meter rates.

Nottingham’s 14.4 mega-watt district heating system is run by contractor Dalkia, with incineration handled by Waste Management Group, a scheme that is already known to run at a massive cost to the council. Now the council in Leicester, whose proud aim from the 1990s has been to produce the UK’s first city-wide CHP scheme by linking up generators and building new ones, has announced an unbelievable increase in bills from 10th November. Making an excuse that it was forced to pass on price increases of gas and electricity, the weekly cost of heating and hot water is to rise by £8.58 to £15.10 for a one-bedroom flat, and by £14.67 to £25.82 for a three-bedroom house. This will seriously affect some of the poorest people in the city. In a BBC report, St Matthew’s Tenants’ Association chair Jean Williams said: “Most of the people on this estate are taking the lowest-paid jobs and Leicester City Council have failed us badly.” Residents had presented a 369-name petition to the city council and were planning to compile a letter to Gordon Brown which they wanted their MP to deliver to Downing Street by hand. Tenants also say the system is unreliable and they pay regardless of whether they use energy. To add to the outrage the British National Party is trying to use the price hike to stir up racial hatred by making out it’s only the white working class that is being affected by concentrating on one area of the city.

Rather than the ludicrous idea of blaming non-white neighbours as the fascists propose, or expect too much from petitioning politicians, it seems obvious that working class tenants of all shades should take to the streets of Leicester if the council won’t listen. The idea that it’s all just part of a general increase in fuel prices must be challenged, not least because because it has already been suggested that Leicester Energy Limited failed to produce a city-wide scheme before now because it was unable to agree on a power sales contract with the local regional electricity company during the period of privatisation (Powergen/E-on). They might also like to look at how much of the price rise could be due to the council’s pricing of new tenders to expand district heating as well as repair boilers and radiators, which interestingly are dated 21st November. Nottingham city tenants should keep a close eye on their council too in case they try something similar, especially now the local state is out of pocket due to its investments in Icelandic banks!