Monday, February 16, 2009

Lagging Behind

He's somewhere under this lot

Tyler Senior has just been lagged. He's been given the government approved 270mm of glass fibre matting, and his pipes have been covered in foam.

Well, not his personal pipes you understand: the loft in his house has been insulated under the government's Warm Front scheme.

According to the government's eco-propaganda campaign, it's going to slash his fuel bills. But best of all, he hasn't had to pay a penny: because he's over 70, it turns out to be free.

I say "turns out to be free" because he didn't discover that until the actual day of installation. Originally, he'd been told he'd have to pay some of it himself. But the very helpful installation team said that must have been a mistake, so after a couple of calls, and the production of his passport, he got let off.

So great.


Well, I suppose if you wanted to carp, given all the money we're spending and all the grandstanding various politicos have done over Warm Front, you might ask why it took six months from Tyler Snr's initial application for the work to get done? And why was he told he'd have to pay, when that was incorrect and might well have put him off? And why wasn't the work done until after the worst of the winter was over? And why is the other bit - cavity wall insulation - not happening until this summer, lagging a whole year behind his original application?

As it happens, the National Audit Office recently reported on Warm Front. And over the weekend there was an interesting report on it the Times.

Overall, the programme has cost us £2.4bn, and it supposedly helps households in "fuel poverty"- defined as households where 10% or more of household income going on fuel bills. It relies on a (lower case) contractor, eaga, which administers the scheme and manages the 139 sub-contractors responsible for installing heating and insulation systems.

Now, straightaway, the wasteometer starts twitching - the Simple Shopper, a private sector supplier, end-customers given no choice of contractor... it sounds like a familiar story.

Suprisingly (to us) the NAO found that Warm Front contractor prices are not wildly out of line with market levels (although they are higher for installing new boilers).

But its other findings are much less reassuring:
  • "Value for money has been impaired by problems in Scheme design" - eligibility criteria mean many benefits go to households who do not actually need help
  • Genuinely poor households get put off by being told they'll be charged

The Times report also contains a lot of pretty negative feedback from readers who've actually used Warm Front. Eg:

"Times Money reader Malcolm Field, 56, applied to Warm Front for a new boiler on behalf of his 80-year-old mother. The total cost was £3,300, so his mother was asked to pay a top-up fee of £600. Mr Field says: “The contractor took more than a week to fit the boiler and its work was appalling. We called it out six times because the system failed. Eventually, 18 months later, a new pump was fitted and it now seems to work. My brother was a plumber and says that the work should not have come to more than £1,500. These contractors are lining their pockets with the Government's and pensioners' money.”

And there's another thing: having now read these reports, I don't think Tyler Snr was lagged under the Warm Front programme at all. It was some other programme of unknown provenance.

As so often, the government has set up such a complex thicket of different schemes all targeting the same issue, it's difficult to fathom quite where Warm Front fits in. I'm not suggesting you try to understand it, but here's the NAO summary:

Baffling, and my strong suspicion is that the suppliers can't follow it either - hence the initial confusion over whether Tyler Snr would have to pay.

I hate to keep saying it, but tax-funded home insulation and heating looks like another prime candidate for George's axe list.

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