These are unusual times indeed. The shops are closed. The schools are closed. Our offices are closed. We’re applauding our NHS, we’re washing our hands (a lot), we’re helping our neighbours. We’re learning to juggle childcare with working from home and have all had a crash course in online meetings. We’re in week 2 of lockdown and it’s all beginning to feel just a little bit more normal…
Some of us of course are battling every day to keep things running, to support our vulnerable customers and to make sure – quite literally – that the lights stay on and the (hot) water keeps flowing. But with the disappearance of commuting time and travelling to external meetings, for some of us diaries are also starting to free up.
Which got us thinking – are there any strategic jobs we could be getting on with while we’re working from home? Things that don’t require face-to-face meetings or require just a little bit more head space than we can usually find.
From our recent work with social housing heat network operators we’ve come up with a (short) list of things you could do to get your ducks lined up for the year ahead (because we will emerge the other side blinking into the sunlight):
1. Respond to and support your vulnerable customers. This has to be top of your list and you’ve probably got it in hand already. Ofgem has led the way for the gas and electricity markets and although heat is unregulated we need to make sure we’re looking after those most in need. This may mean extending your emergency credit limit for Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) customers or delaying credit billing cycles, but you’ll need to think about how these debts are recovered in the longer term.
2. Sharpen up your vulnerability strategy. The crisis has thrown a light on ways in which we can or should support those most in need. As social housing providers you probably already have a good idea of who these are, but circumstances change and so do the support that is required. In this crisis for example, anyone self-isolating is potentially vulnerable, not something that many of us would have seen coming. Use this time to think strategically about your vulnerability policy for heat networks: who does it include, how do you find out about them and what support can you offer?
3. Get regulation ready 1: metering and billing. We’re still waiting for the Government’s response to the Metering and Billing Consultation to be published. The six-month implementation phase was impossible before the crisis and will be doubly impossible now, so we’re expecting some space to open up in compliance – but it’s not going to go away. Until the cost-effectiveness tool is published we won’t know exactly what information will be required (although the technical annex to the consultation gives a good idea). However, use this time to find out where your asset information is stored – you’ll need built form, accommodation profiles and asset data.
4. Get regulation ready 2: respond to the Heat Network Market Framework Consultation. There’s nothing like some quality desk time to get your head round a Government consultation. Published in May, the Heat Network Market Framework consultation scopes out Government’s approach to Ofgem becoming the sector’s Regulator, covering all domestic and micro-SME heat network customers. It will affect your heat networks too, so feed in now to make sure the social housing sector is well represented.
5. Join The Heat Network. The Heat Network is a peer group of social housing providers who meet to discuss and share good practice about district and communal heating. Collectively, they represent 80,000 homes on over 900 networks: 7% of all heat networks as defined by BEIS and 17% of all customers. They’ve been developing ‘beginners guides’ to key aspects of heat network management and also respond to various Government consultations. You can sign up for email updates here.
6. Brush off your Employer’s Requirements (ER’s). The schemes with heat networks that your Development Team are working right now will become part of your portfolio once they become operational. In order to prevent them becoming a compliance nightmare, take the opportunity to get ER’s and specifcations for new build heat networks updated now. What do you want them to look like in terms of performance, commissioning, customer service, communications and metering and billing?
7. Draw a process map. This is an exercise we go through with many of our clients. Heat networks are multi-faceted and cut across many different internal departments. Think about every step of a heat network journey – design and specification, commissioning and handover, operation and management. And from a customer point of view too – sign-up, moving-in, paying the bills, getting things fixed and moving out. Who in your organisation is involved at each step? Is it all joined together? And how could it be improved?
8. Review your tariffs. With a little spare time on your hands, now is also a good time to look at your tariffs. Most importantly, are you recovering your costs? It’s good practice to review your tariffs annually and to reflect any changes in costs such as gas prices or metering and billing fees. Tariffs should also be transparent and explained in straight forward terms: do your customers know what’s included in their tariff and how their bill is worked out?
9. Plan now for when we can all go back. Of course, we don’t yet when this will end, but it will. Start some planning now for the year head so you can hit the ground running later. Getting on with planning, procurement and internal engagement now means that works can start quicker and will be a much-needed boost for a badly battered economy.
It’s not an exhaustive list of course but should give you some ideas on where to give some strategic focus in the coming months. Do let us know if you’ve got other ideas that we can share. We’re always happy to have a chat about your heat network headaches and how to tackle them: just drop us a line to firstname.lastname@example.org