John Wotherspoon was promised that his new energy-efficient solar panels and boiler would not cost him a penny.
The £3,000 combi boiler and £5,000 panels would ‘pay for themselves’ through the savings he’d make on his energy bills, he was told.
But over the past five years, the retired builder’s bills have soared and he is now burdened with a debt that he will not pay off until he is well into his 90s.
The flopped The Green Deal scheme has left a legacy of thousands of households lumbered with high-interest loans that they will be paying for decades to come
John is just one of thousands of homeowners who say they were sold a lie when they signed up to the Government’s flagship energy-saving scheme.
The Green Deal was hailed as the ‘biggest home improvement programme since the Second World War’ when it was launched by the Government in 2013.
It promised homeowners solar panels, insulation and new boilers, with no up-front cost. Customers would need to take out a loan, but they were assured that the repayments would be no more than the savings they’d make on their energy bills.
So if a customer’s bill was £1,200 a year, they would pay no more than that, and any savings generated would be used to cover the Green Deal repayments.
The problem was that this was based on a typical household’s energy usage, and many homeowners who used less than average have ended up with higher bills.
On top of this, the loans were tied to the property, rather than the individual, which means homeowners could struggle to sell their house in the future.
The multi-million pound scheme was dropped by the Government after just two years following low uptake and was described by MPs as a ‘complete fiasco’.
But the flopped scheme has left a legacy of thousands of households lumbered with high-interest loans that they will be paying for decades to come.
GOVERNMENT SEAL OF APPROVAL
The now-bust firm Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems (Helms) installed PV panels on 4,263 homes in the UK in the name of the Government’s Green Deal. Some 2,742 of these were in Scotland.
It received money from the Government through the Green Deal Finance Company, which was set up to lend to a list of authorised installers such as Helms.
But the Government withdrew this funding in 2015 amid concerns over low uptake and industry standards.
It was also revealed in the same year that around 10 per cent of assessor organisations and 12 per cent of installers had been stripped of Green Deal credentials for flouting the official code of practice.
Many homeowners also complained that they did not know exactly what they were signing up to, had been oversold the benefits and had no idea they would be locked into repaying debt — with interest rates between 7.9 per cent and 10 per cent APR — over 25 years.
Others complained that they were not profiting from the excess energy generated by their panels, while others said their panels did not work at all.
Labour MP Paul Sweeney said in Parliament in October 2018: ‘The complete failure to regulate the scheme properly has allowed it to be ruthlessly exploited by gangsters and other rogue traders, who have systematically preyed on trusting people who thought that, as the scheme was approved and accredited by the Government, they could trust its credentials and sign up.’
‘Sold down the river’: Sharon Campbell is among the thousands of homeowners who have been saddled with debt
In 2015, Glasgow-based Helms was fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for illegally bombarding homeowners with six million pre-recorded calls. It paid just £10,000 of the fine before going into liquidation in April 2016.
The ICO said the tactic caused widespread ‘misery’, with one family who were waiting for news about an ill relative having to listen to repeated recorded messages because they could not ignore the phone.
In a damning recent report, Citizens Advice outlined a range of tactics used by Helms’s door-to-door salesmen, including pressure-selling to vulnerable customers and giving misleading information.
As of October 2018, 56 of the 79 complaints sent to the Government about Green Deal companies related to Helms customers — and 11 per cent of all Helms customers have complained to the Green Deal Finance company (GDFC).
Citizens Advice says Helms also wrongly told customers in some areas that they did not require council building approval for work
Kate Morrison, energy policy manager at Citizens Advice Scotland, said: ‘We know about hundreds of cases, but we fear there may be more people who haven’t come forward yet. So the UK Government needs to act so that all customers of this company are given the opportunity to come forward and access appropriate compensation.
‘Helms customers entered into their agreements in good faith but they were misled and have suffered higher bills for four years because of this rogue company, with some facing two more decades of repayments.’
After Helms folded, the GDFC later acquired the firm’s loans, which are invoiced on a household’s energy bills. But, as these homeowners will testify, the damage was already done.
‘INSTALLERS SOLD US A PUP’
John Wotherspoon heard about the Green Deal scheme after noticing Helms doing work on other properties in his street.
He says that before a salesman enticed him into signing up in 2014, he was paying around £100 a month for his gas and electricity.
Currently, his bill is at least £140 a month — including Green Deal loan repayments which amount to £2.63 a day.
The loan — which will take him more than 20 years to repay at the current rate — is tied to his three-bedroom terraced house in the town of Blantyre in south Lanarkshire, making him fear it will be impossible to sell.
He says: ‘The Green Deal was this golden promise that you would never pay more than you were previously paying.
‘At my age I didn’t want to take on any liabilities. I thought I was being a good citizen. It is a dreadful scam. We were totally sold a pup.’
John, who lives with wife Janette, 74, says he should never have been allowed to sign up to the scheme because he did not use enough energy to make it worthwhile.
He adds: ‘At my age, and the small amount of money we were spending, we should never have qualified for it.
‘Why should I spend the last few years of my life paying this off rather than enjoying my retirement? There is no natural justice here.’
The grandfather of four says he had no reason to doubt what he was sold because it was a Government-backed scheme.
But, he adds: ‘It has been a total shambles and a millstone round our necks.’
Sharon Campbell owes more than £20,000 after agreeing to have solar panels, a new boiler and cladding installed under the Green Deal
PANELS TRIPLED OUR MONTHLY BILL
Sharon Campbell — who also lives in Blantyre, where the average house is worth £132,000 — owes more than £20,000 after agreeing to have solar panels, a new boiler and cladding installed under the Green Deal.
But after noticing no change in her bills, she has switched her panels off.
She says: ‘We were getting absolutely nothing. My bills have not changed.’
A Helms salesman had turned up at her door uninvited and encouraged her to sign up in 2014.
The 51-year-old used to pay around £110 for her power every quarter, but this rose by £200 when her daily Green Deal repayment charge of £2.17 was added. She says: ‘There was no way on this earth I would have signed up to that. I have never had debt in my life.
‘Everything just fell apart. It is so stressful. It was a complete lie. We thought we had nothing to lose, but those panels haven’t made any electricity for us and we’ve had no benefit whatsoever.’
Sharon now fears she will have nothing to leave to her ten-year- old daughter.
The part-time administrator adds: ‘I thought I was doing the right thing signing up to this Green Deal, but it has been a nightmare.
‘I hope something can be done to rid us of this burden which is going to take away my kid’s inheritance if it is allowed to continue.’
She says her partner, Thomas McQuade, with whom she owns the house, did not sign up, but he has also been saddled with the debt as it is secured on the house now.
Meanwhile, Dennis McGilligan, 66, also of Blantyre, faces spending the next 18 years paying off a £20,000 debt for a boiler and solar panels from which, he says, he does not benefit.
The retired shipyard worker, who lives with wife Anne, 65, has to pay £1.62 in Green Deal loan repayments each day.
He says: ‘I thought as the Government was backing it, everything would have been fine. I thought it was going to be really good, but you are simply paying more. I’ll be 84 before this is repaid.’
He says he was told he would have to pay Helms £3,500 if he wanted to sell excess electricity generated by his solar panels to the grid.
The grandfather-of-two says he first contacted Helms after he saw other properties getting the panels installed and thought they looked ‘fantastic’ and would save him money.
He says: ‘The sales rep was insistent that I wouldn’t lose any money with the Green Deal.’
Dennis signed up to a loan for 16 solar panels, energy-saving light bulbs and a boiler. He says he gets some energy savings, but it is ‘very little’ and not worth the cost of the loan repayments.
Furthermore, he claims Helms workers damaged his roof tiles when installing the panels — causing a leak through to the bathroom.
DEBT COULD BLOCK ME SELLING MY HOME
Widower David Boyce, 61, says he doesn’t receive any money from his solar panels
Widower David Boyce, 61, says he was ‘sold down the river’ after being convinced to take out a £8,400 loan for solar panels.
A sales rep from Helms knocked on his door just under four years ago offering solar panels as part of the Green Deal.
The security worker, who lives alone after losing his wife Janet 15 years ago, was told they were completely free.
The idea was that they would generate electricity he could use, then anything left over would go to reducing his bills.
So he agreed and, in March 2015, had 12 panels installed on the roof of his two-bedroom terraced house in Portsmouth.
It was only after signing up that he discovered, in the small print, that he would have to pay £28 a month to his electricity provider over 25 years to cover the loan cost of around £8,400. He estimates that so far he has paid more than £1,000.
To add insult to injury, David says he doesn’t even receive any money from the solar panels.
He says he uses very little electricity and used to pay around £30 each month.
He now pays double that due to the added loan repayments.
David says: ‘It seemed like a good deal at the time. I knew I was going to be at home a lot so free electricity was appealing.
‘But I hadn’t read the small print and apparently I had to pay £28 for some grant.
‘I didn’t know anything about this and it wasn’t explained to me.
‘They told me they were going to be free solar panels but I’ve been landed with a debt.
‘It’s a nightmare. I’m still having to pay the money but I’m not getting any return from the solar panels.’
David adds: ‘I’ve had to be really careful with money over the last few years and it’s made me insecure about who I trust.
‘They sold me down the river , and now I don’t speak to people on the doorstep when they come knocking.
‘I’m 61 and I worry that if I get ill or need to sell, this debt could prevent me from selling my home.’
Brass neck of loans boss with zero shame
Helms boss Mr Skillen is said to be spending much of his time soaking up the sunshine abroad
He is accused of having the ‘brassiest of brass necks’.
Robert Skillen ran Helms, the company that ripped off thousands over the Green Deal, MPs have alleged in Parliament.
But while many of the company’s victims are now trapped in homes they can’t sell, and involved in a long battle for compensation, Mr Skillen is said to be spending much of his time soaking up the sunshine abroad.
He recently updated his Facebook profile picture to show him laughing on a golf buggy.
And he is even accused of ‘seeking to profit’ from the scandal after setting up a company called True Solar Savings, for people to find out how much they lost under the deal.
Scottish National Party MP Gavin Newlands told the Commons: ‘He has fleeced us once, but now wants to assist us in getting redress from his own company’s mis-selling. The man has zero shame, and his outrageous lack of recognition of his culpability is astounding.’
Mr Skillen has also kept his £1 million home in Glasgow’s upmarket West End, where he has recently returned to defend himself.
When the Mail caught up with him he was on the golf course, but called back — after finishing his game — to strenuously deny all the allegations.
He blamed the problems on Government- approved software which he claims exaggerated the predicted savings on solar panels by 400 pc — and even promised to give anyone who can prove him wrong £10 million.
In a recent parliamentary debate, Mr Newlands described the company’s behaviour as ‘inexcusable.’ He added: ‘The use of classic dodgy salesman tactics — overstaying in customers’ homes to intimidate them into a sale, blatant falsifying of figures, misleading documentation, fraudulent marking of signatures, insistence on inappropriate works and outright lying to elderly, vulnerable individuals — has pushed victims into deeper fuel poverty and debt, with no access to a quick and effective remedy.
‘In the majority of cases that I have seen, individuals were sold solar panels regardless of need or suitability. Helms was accredited and promoted, under the Government banner, allowing it to enter homes and sell under a false umbrella of trust.’
Fellow SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford said most homeowners who signed up were in their 70s and 80s — one with dementia, another with almost total blindness.
She said: ‘It was not, on any level, the selling of solar panels. It was fraud.’ Labour MP Paul Sweeney said it was ‘appalling’ that Mr Skillen had refused to accept ‘the harm he has caused to thousands of people, who cannot sleep at night. I hope he will realise the impact he has had on them.’
Mr Skillen insists he has been made a ‘scapegoat’ for the Green Deal fiasco and that the entire problem stems from a mistake made by the Government about the price of solar energy.
He says: ‘The Government knowingly gave people already in fuel poverty solar loans of approximately £330 per year for 23 years when they knew the true savings were about £80.
‘If I’m wrong, I’ll sell everything I won and pay £10 million compensation.’
He says his new website does not make him any money, but is to help those who lost out under the Green Deal.
All of the work Helms carried out was backed with a ten-year guarantee, he added.
TOLD IT WOULDN’T COST A PENNY
Great-grandmother Linda Noseley is sick with worry after being left in debt by the Green Deal scheme.
The 67-year-old heard about the scheme through a friend, who gave her a number to call.
A Helms sales representative later visited her home to talk through her options.
He assured her that it ‘wouldn’t cost a penny’ to have solar panels fitted on her Nottingham bungalow. In fact, he claimed, it would actually make Linda money.
She would need to take out a £7,856 loan over 22 years and eight months, with repayments of 95p a day, he said. But he promised that the money she would save on her energy bills would more than cover this cost. So Linda agreed and 12 panels were fitted in February 2015.
Yet six months later Linda realised she was saving only about £6 a month in energy — less than a quarter of the cost of the loan.
It meant that she built up a debt of around £400 with her energy supplier.
Linda says: ‘They said it wouldn’t cost me a penny, that it was Government-funded. And in my naivety I believed them. I did say to them: ‘Look, I’m a pensioner and I live on my own, so if this goes wrong I’ve got a problem.’
‘They told me to look at the bottom of the agreements, the assurances printed there, and said I could call the ombudsman if something went wrong. But they said I didn’t need to worry because it wouldn’t.
‘It was only about six months in that I realised it wouldn’t work for me and I wouldn’t save anything.
The retired machinist complained to Helms in October 2015 but to no avail. She is now trying to get her money back through a no-win, no-fee solicitor whom she hired in April 2017.
It became apparent that Linda had been losing out on £21 each month since having the panels installed.
She still owes her energy company about £400, but she now no longer has to pay the 95p daily loan repayments.
Linda still fears she will not be able to sell her home because the loan is attached to the property itself rather than her as the customer.
She says: ‘As I get older, I’m hoping to move to somewhere more manageable, but the solar panels are a really big thing.
‘The company has gone bankrupt, and I have no idea who owns the solar panels now; if something went wrong with them, I would have no idea who to call.
‘One of the first things a potential buyer would ask would be about the panels, but I wouldn’t know what to tell them.
‘I could have them uninstalled — but that would cost even more money. I’m really hoping my solicitor will sort everything for me soon.
‘I can’t believe I was sucked in. It hasn’t been nice at all, and has made me poorly. I would say it was a total con.’
Around two-thirds of the Green Deal contracts were completed by Helms, according to Gerry Chambers, office manager for Blantyre’s MSP Clare Haughey.
Mr Chambers says Helms ‘targeted’ areas dense with former social housing properties in Scotland.
Blantyre was one of several ‘cluster areas’ where scores of Green Deal contracts were signed with the company, he says.
He adds: ‘The main issue with the model was that people didn’t realise they were being tied into these loans which would last for around 25 years.
‘People also didn’t realise that the loan was taken out against the property, so any future buyer would inherit it. I know of people who have had buyers pull out when they have realised the property came with this loan.’
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says: ‘We have put in place a robust process for handling complaints under the Green Deal.
‘Consumers should first go to their Green Deal provider and, if not resolved satisfactorily, may then approach the Green Deal Ombudsman or the Financial Ombudsman Service.’
Are you a victim of the green deal con?
If you were flogged a Green Deal loan that has left you worse off, or the debt means you cannot sell your home, please write to us at: money email@example.com or Money Mail, Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT.
You should also complain to your provider. This might be the firm that visited your home to assess it, or installed the equipment.
The firm’s contact details should be in any documents it sent, and on your Energy Performance Certificate.
If your complaint is not resolved within eight weeks, or you are unhappy with the outcome, refer your case to the Green Deal Ombudsman on 0330 440 1624 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are still not satisfied with the decision, the Secretary of State for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy is the final place to go.
You can email them through email@example.com, call 020 7215 5000, or you can write a letter to Green Deal Team, 6th Floor, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET.