Sean Hooker: Calling all landlords and agents - be smart and save the planet!

1 November 2021

In light of net zero goals and the energy crisis, does your agency, its landlords, and its tenants understand the benefits of Smart Meters - and whose responsibility it is to get them installed?

Sometimes in life there is a conjunction of the planets that means that you are saying the right things at the right time. This was where I found myself on Wednesday 18th October, when I took part in a webinar hosted by Smart Energy on the role of letting agents in helping the roll out of Smart Meters in the private rented sector.

Smart Energy are the organisation tasked by the Government to promote the take up of Smart Meters and you may have seen some of their work in the form of television advertising featuring none other than Albert Einstein himself (at least, a CGI version of the Nobel Prize-winning genius). They approached me back in the spring, May 4 to be precise, which prompts me to use the apt phrase, "May the Force be with You", and asked for my help getting landlords and letting agents to promote Smart Meters to their tenants.

I arranged for a meeting with their team and brought along my colleague, Julie Ford, who is an advisor for HF Assist and also one of our mediators for PRS Mediation. She is also a passionate campaigner against fuel poverty and so was precisely the expert I needed by my side.

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In our discussions on how to reach out to the sector, I suggested that they held an Awareness Week and targeted the industry through the many organisations and individuals who held sway and could reach and influence landlords and agents. I also opened up my black book and suggested others could get on board. They did all the hard work after this and the first Smart Meter Awareness Week took place on 18-22 October, including webinars for landlords and letting agents.

Timing for publicity campaigns is always crucial and I suggested autumn, as this was when the weather was turning and the heating was starting to go on, and tied in well with the COP 26 Summit in Glasgow. What I did not predict, however, was the energy crisis we now find ourselves in, with energy providers folding and fuel prices set to soar to unprecedented levels. The Government also announced their long-term plans for the country to become Carbon net zero and their plans for minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) and EPCs in the private rented sector.

So, what did we discuss during the webinar? Whilst I will not attempt to summarise every question that was asked, the basic topics were around the reasons why private renters are less likely to request a smart meter; why we felt that there is so much confusion on whose responsibility it is to install the meters; and whether tenants, landlords, and agents understand the benefits of the meters.

I pointed out that I had received no direct complaints from tenants about being refused permission to install a smart meter. I did point out that the Property Redress Scheme only deals with complaints against agents and, on the whole they act on the landlord’s behalf, so if there was a complaint, this is ultimately the landlord’s decision. We all agreed however that the level of awareness of smart meters across the board was probably lower than it should be. Many tenants are scared to raise the issue of changing meters and this led onto a discussion on whether clauses in tenancy agreements that state that a tenant cannot change a meter without permission could be putting tenants off asking for a new meter or switching supplier. Citizens Advice confirmed that their studies showed tenants are far less likely to switch than homeowners.

These clauses date from the days when landlords did not want tenants to change a prepayment meter to a contract and then leave with unpaid bills. However, landlords are not liable for any debt racked up by tenants and the new smart meters even allow tenants to top up their accounts remotely. They also allow for short, deferred periods, so if the tenants are strapped for cash and their credit has run out, they are not left in the cold and the dark. Tenants also have the right to switch accounts and get the best tariffs, so it makes sense to encourage them to do so - if they are saving money on power, they will have more cash to pay their rent!

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Fuel poverty is an increasing issue as is the fear of not being able to pay the bills. Parliament’s Committee on Fuel Poverty report for 2020 hardly gives the government a clean bill of health on this, and the private rented sector is under scrutiny. Smart Meters properly used can help the tenant manage their spending better and understand the best way they can use energy, rather than let it get out of control or, even worse, become scared to use the heating or power and put their health at risk. I pointed out that, not only is that bad for the tenant, but often for the landlord’s property - black mould and condensation thrive in properties without adequate heating, while pipes freezing and flooding the property is a risk if an ambient temperature is not maintained in the property.

We talked about whether more should be done to make sure smart meters were installed and whether the installation of smart meters should be compulsory for rented properties. Daryl MacIntosh of ARLA Propertymark thought that this would be counterproductive as this would be as just another way for the authorities to make money out of fines or, worse, become an empty requirement that would not be enforced. I did suggest that smart meter installation could be encouraged as part of local licensing schemes, in particular because HMOs and student lets are those that have the lowest take-up rate. On the whole, however, we felt that the process should be more carrot than stick and promoting the benefits of the system would be far better than more regulation.

The question asked of the agents in our virtual audience, was whether they care about net zero and the energy crisis and did they see the benefits to their marketing and business of promoting the environment to an increasingly green savvy tenant? The responses were encouraging, however, these agents were self-selected and attending because they do care. The market also is booming at the moment, so many agents do not have to do much to attract tenants. This said, the power of public opinion is pervasive, and the pressure will mount on all of us to do our bit.

The demand for ethical and sustainable business models is growing and many of us want to do the right thing and are acutely aware of the damage to our reputations in the long run of not doing our bit. Many agents called for more information and guidance to help them. There is a wealth of information on the Smart Energy website, but organisations such as Hamilton Fraser have produced guidance on Smart Meters.

But it was not all doom and gloom! The benefits of easy check-in and check-out using a real-time meter reading were applauded and no longer does anyone have to scrabble about in the dark and dust to read the meter! Yes, we have come a long way from the person with the torch knocking on our doors or the pile of coins on the drop and twist prepay, however for many tenants, they are still in the dark ages - sometimes literally. I hope this awareness campaign has had an effect and that the agents and landlords who have engaged have seen that making sure there is the switch, is in their enlightened self-interest.

As Einstein would probably point out, this is a cinch compared to E=mc2!

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