Octogenarian Portsmouth pensioners Fred and Beryl Bardock were the first of many readers to tell Streetwise they were mis-sold solar roof panels by shamed green deal firm HELMS.
Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems (HELMS) went bust after saddling them with a 23-year loan agreement running into thousands of pounds which they had no hope of repaying.
But now News readers have been thrown a lifeline by the Green Deal Finance Company, (GDFC) which has acquired the loans after the government abruptly suspended the green deal scheme and cut off its funding.
The idea behind the ‘Green Deal’ scheme was to give loans to people for home energy improvements.
A Streetwise investigation in 2016 revealed Glasgow based HELMS had been fined £10,500 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change for misleading sales practices.
A month earlier it was fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for making more than six million nuisance calls.
The company went to the wall after paying just £10,000 of the fines.
The GDFC’s acquisition of the HELMS loanbook is welcome news. Left repaying a £7,500 debt to their energy provider Southern Electric, the Bardocks can now apply to have the loan cancelled or the repayment terms rescheduled.
They were one of a number of readers who’d been conned by a HELMS salesman into believing they were entitled to ‘free’ solar panel installations that would save them money.
The theory was that surplus electricity generated by the panels and exported back to their electricity company – the feed in tariff – would result in lower bills.
Fred Bardock (83) said: ‘Nobody told us we were signing up to a credit agreement. We were led to believe we’d save a fortune on our electricity bills, but the reverse has happened. We’ve also been tied into paying an additional £25 a month for 23 years.
‘Since we’ve had the panels the cost has literally gone through the roof.’
Bridgemary disabled pensioners Ken and Susan Baker said they were stitched up by HELMS salesmen who had cold-called them with an offer they claimed would be silly to refuse.
But despite having the panels installed and Southern Electric activating the agreement, the Bakers’ monthly direct debit electricity payments unexpectedly jumped from £85 to £111 – an increase of £26.
Another HELMs customer, David Boyce, 59, of Portsmouth, says he was told the panels would generate free electricity during the day, and anything left over would go to reducing his bills.
He didn’t understand all the small print but only discovered he’d signed a credit agreement when Southern Electric increased his monthly payments by £32.
‘HELMs just conned me,’ he said. ‘If I’d have known I’d never have done it.’
Streetwise contacted the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), The Energy saving Trust, and Trading Standards. We discovered between them they’d received more than 470 complaints.
We advised readers to complain to the FOS. They are responsible for financial regulation and mis-selling.
The FOS took details of their complaints, but because HELMS went into liquidation there was little or no prospect of any financial redress.
In the interim we raised the HELMS green deal mis-selling issues with the government.
After all it was its failed policy that had left the public inadequately protected from the firm’s sharp practice.
Despite being part of the problem, it soon became clear ministers were not prepared to become part of any solution.
Amber Rudd, who was secretary of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change when the green deal scheme was scrapped in 2015, refused to insist the credit agreements with the energy providers were suspended.
But a breakthrough finally came last January, when the moribund Green Deal Finance Company and its loan book were effectively privatised.
It was acquired from the government by a business consortium, Aurium Capital markets, and Greenstone Finance.
The relaunched GDFC has revived the ‘green deal’ scheme with a number of carefully- vetted installers to ensure its customers receive a high-quality service.
Streetwise has learned this has enabled the FOS to pass more than 200 HELMS mis-selling complaints to them, including those raised by Streetwise readers.
A spokesperson for the GDFC said: ‘In order to find a way that the HELMS customer complaints that have been made to the Financial Ombudsman Service can be progressed, GDFC, as it administers the loans, offered to review complaints against HELMS.
‘GDFC has access to the loan administration system and is able to make changes to the amount owed under the loan on a case-by-case basis, if it is appropriate to do so based on a review of the complaint.
‘If GDFC’s investigation into a complaint shows that a customer of HELMS was mis-sold a Green Deal loan, GDFC will be able to either offer a cancellation of the loan, or a reduction to the loan amount, as it can implement these on the system. Such offers will be made on a case-by-case basis.
‘GDFC cannot offer to remove the installed solar panels.’
Readers who were duped by HELMS and have registered their complaint with the FOS can contact the firm via their website at https://www.gdfc.co.uk/ or write to the Green Deal Finance Company, 20, Eastbourne Terrace, London, W2 6LG. The customer helpline is 0330 111 8098.