Solar panel firm 'mis-sold 25-year contracts in Stoke'

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Jo LockettImage source, Jo Lockett
Image caption,
Jo Lockett said customers want the contracts to end

Hundreds of tenants who agreed to have solar panels fitted to their homes have said they were signed up to 25-year contracts without their knowledge.

Solarplicity Energy offered customers in Stoke-on-Trent, in conjunction with the city council, free panels and reduced electricity and gas bills.

But tenants said the firm, which ceased trading last year, did not say they were agreeing to lengthy contracts.

The company said it accepted customer service "was not good enough".

Solarplicity Energy ceased trading in August after criticism from Ofgem and the Energy Ombudsman, with the ombudsman having received 3,324 complaints about billing, switching and service.

The free community energy scheme was offered to more than 6,000 homes through Stoke-on-Trent City Council from 2018. For every house that signed up the authority got £100.

Tenant Jo Lockett said the main complaint customers had was over their digital signatures, given on a iPad to agree to a survey being carried out on their homes, being copied on to contracts they knew nothing about.

Image source, Jo Lockett
Image caption,
The firm said it "underestimated" the time spent with tenants explaining the scheme

Ms Lockett, who joined up in June 2018, said she found out about the contract length when she enquired about changing suppliers, something customers were allowed to do.

"I explained I'd never heard of anything so bizarre to sign a contract for 25 years, as no-one in their right mind would, and that I'd never even signed any contract, only to agree to a survey on an iPad," she said.

She said the customers she knew wanted the contracts "ripped up" and the panels removed.

Ian Tomkinson, 60, from Dresden in Stoke-on-Trent, who suffers ill health and post-traumatic stress disorder, said he signed up in August 2018 after moving into a new home but was yet to receive a bill.

He said his mental health had been affected as he had struggled to reach the firm, the council or the new suppliers since Solarplicity Energy went bust.

"I wasn't told anything about a contract," he said.

"They've gone for the elderly and vulnerable... I don't want this hanging over me."

Image source, May Lewis
Image caption,
May Lewis said she helps and supports other customers left confused by the contracts

Another angry customer, May Lewis, 77 from Longton, said she had been helping "so many others" who were upset and confused by what happened.

"Some have said they've felt suicidal as they're getting bills for things they don't understand and higher amounts than they were promised.

"I blame the council for letting them come in... We trusted them."

The Energy Ombudsman said it resolved four complaints last year about Solarplicity Energy using a customer's signature for another purpose after they had signed an Ipad, a complaint they classed as "erroneous switching or face-to-face miss-selling".

Tim Day from Solarplicity Smart Systems, which has been responsible for the roll-out of the scheme, said he accepted customer service was not good enough in Stoke-on-Trent and it was clear people were not happy.

"We underestimated the amount of customer service we had to give," he said.

Image source, Jo Lockett
Image caption,
The free community energy scheme was offered to more than 6,000 homes through Stoke-on-Trent City Council

"We've worked with the council while we have updated and improved things, met customers with the council and gone through their complaints and made appropriate changes.

"We underestimated the time we spent with tenants explaining it to them."

A number of other firms within the Solarplicity group have not gone into administration and continue to operate. EDF now supplies the residents.

Mr Day said customers were told at the time they signed up for the panels that their digital signature on the Ipad would be used on other documentation as part of them joining the scheme, which was a "widely used practice".

Contracts were for 25 years because it took time for the business to get its money back, he said. If they moved from the property, the contract did not move with them, he added.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council said it was aware of the issues some tenants had experienced and was working to resolve them and "at all times we have reiterated this is not acceptable".

"We continue to work directly with this cohort to understand more and to resolve issues - this is ongoing."

The complaints were discussed at a council meeting on 6 February and subsequent recommendations from the meeting "will now be considered", the council said.

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