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“Awful… ineptitude” — what went wrong with the Mayor’s solar power scheme?

 (Evening Standard composite)
(Evening Standard composite)

When Nicole Mowbray and her husband decided to invest in solar panels for their home, little did they realise that helping to make London greener would turn into a nightmare.

The couple are among hundreds who put their trust in the multi-million pound Solar Together scheme only to find themselves battling to get large deposits back after unacceptable delays.

The Solar Together scheme has been backed since 2017 by Mayor Sadiq Khan and several local authorities, as part of an energy policy which aims to make London zero carbon. The Mowbrays, from Brixton, were delighted to see an advert for a solar panel group-buying initiative in Lambeth Council’s magazine, Lambeth Talk. The blurb reassured residents having the system “will allow you to cut energy costs and power your home with clean energy”.

“Our pre-vetted solar installers will submit bids for the work to give you the most competitive price,” it stated.

Writer and mother-of-one Ms Mowbray, 43 — married to photojournalist Lewis, 44 — told the Standard: “If something will make the place greener for our children, I’m all in favour of it. We didn’t really think too much about paying the upfront deposit of £150 or, if all went well, the total cost of £8,500 for the panels.

“I trusted the installer — Green Energy Together UK (GET-UK) — because it was part of the scheme which was backed by the Mayor of London and Lambeth Council. If I were to do this myself, I would look up Checkatrade and do my own research.”

Which is exactly what Ms Mowbray, a former British Vogue features editor, did when things went downhill fast. Having gladly received her deposit, she says GET-UK failed to turn up on December 22 and 27 or January 3 to carry out a survey.

On Google, the company has an overall one-star rating out of about 100 reviews from people as far afield as Richmond-upon-Thames and Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire.

The problem, say critics of the Solar Together scheme, is that having spent £886,500 promoting the initiative, Mr Khan outsourced the management of it to a third-party outfit, group-buying experts iChoosr. It is iChoosr who oversaw auctions where solar installers — like GET-UK — competed to offer the lowest price. Unfortunately, City Hall has now received more than 400 complaints about Hertfordshire-based Green Energy Together — and serious question marks have been raised over why the “pre-vetted” company run by Nicolas Elbourne is still contracted to carry out work despite a mountain of negative reviews, debt and even a warning by the Financial Conduct Authority.

Sian Berry (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Sian Berry (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Indeed, the latest accounts filed at Companies House show GET-UK owed creditors £1.7m in 2021 — nearly £700,000 more than in the previous year. Only £100 was paid into the company as share capital. Mr Elbourne and father David Elbourne, 58, were directors of green energy supplier Solarplicity which collapsed in 2019 with debts of £4.4m.

Siân Berry, a Green member of the London Assembly, said: “Residents from every part of London have contacted me to complain about awful customer service from GET-UK, which I have brought up with the Mayor many times.

“The Mayor’s Solar Together scheme aimed to make it easier and cheaper for Londoners to put solar panels on their roofs, and the last thing we want is for Londoners to give up when faced with this level of ineptitude.”

“I would score zero if it was possible,” says Phil Sutcliffe, a former customer who claimed they cancelled appointments seven times. So frustrated was he and his wife Caroline by “the worst customer experience imaginable” they walked away from GET-UK without fighting for their £150 deposit back. “I wasted hours and days chasing up,” said father-of-two Mr Sutcliffe, 53, partner in a market research company. When engineers failed to turn up six times, he says on the seventh occasion the installer walked off the job.

The last thing we want is for Londoners to give up when faced with this level of ineptitude

Mr Sutcliffe, from Herne Hill, added: “I care very much about the climate crisis but feel let down by the Mayor’s Solar Together scheme. Clearly, they appointed a contractor who they hardly did due diligence on and who is unable to cope with the project. Now is the time to stand up and take responsibility. In the meantime, my advice is to stay well clear of GET-UK.”

Mr Sutcliffe’s words are echoed by dozens of posters on Trustpilot, where GET-UK earns an inglorious one-and-a-half stars from 429 reviews. The site has put a warning in bold above the firm’s entry after “multiple suspected fake four- and five-star reviews” were detected and removed. In a strongly worded statement, a Trustpilot spokesman said: “In the case of GET-UK, we issued a formal cease and desist notice to the business demanding they cease their abuse of the platform with immediate effect.

“Most of the fake reviews were identified and removed by our bespoke fraud detection technology software which, based on multiple data points and patterns, suggested the reviews were related to review seller networks that buy and sell fake reviews.

“Ultimately, this enforcement action did not deter the business and, as a result, in June 2022, in line with our policy we terminated the business’s paid subscription with Trustpilot.

“As a platform dedicated to promoting and protecting trust online, Trustpilot does not tolerate businesses which seek to cheat the system in an effort to exploit and manipulate consumers — and when we identify evidence of abuse...we do not hesitate in taking action.”

Since September, 103 out of 109 reviews received the lowest possible score of one.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan (PA)
London Mayor Sadiq Khan (PA)

Alarmed by what had been unearthed, Ms Mowbray says: “I tried to call GET-UK on the number they wrote on their email but it was a digit short. Then, when I got the real number, I tried 15 times and was on hold for an hour. I pressed for a call back which never happened.”

The Standard has learned the Financial Conduct Authority issued a final notice against GET-UK when it refused an application to start offering customers credit in March 2022. Mr Elbourne’s firm failed at least 12 times between September 11 and December 30, 2021 to provide the FCA with “missing information” about the bid.

Credit manager Jason Sullivan concluded the FCA had “concerns as to whether GET-UK… can be effectively supervised by the Authority… has appropriate human resources… will conduct its business with integrity and in compliance with proper standards as required by threshold condition.”

The FCA wrote: “The failure to provide the requested information raises concerns that GET-UK would fail to do so if the application were to be granted.”

On its website, GET-UK — based on an industrial estate in Ware — claims to provide a “fantastic and stress-free” service and aftercare package.

It insists, as one of the UK’s largest installers, their teams have fitted 40,000 systems saving 36,400 tons of CO2 per year. A spokesman has told the Evening Standard: “Covid had a devastating impact on our supply chains and our cashflow as a business. The knock-on effect of this meant that our customer service simply wasn’t as good as it should have been and we apologise to everyone affected. But we have worked hard, along with our third-party partners, for several months to make things better and resolve any outstanding issues customers have. More than 100 customer orders per week are being fulfilled and recent feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”

In an email to Ms Mowbray on January 4, managing director Mr Elbourne also apologised for the service.

He said he was “acutely aware” of bad online reviews but was “working hard to ensure our customers all receive a good service as expected”.

Mr Elbourne adds: “To put it into context, although this does not excuse any negative review, we carry out between 100 to 150 installations nationwide each week. Over the last two years, whilst battling with unprecedented supply chain issues and unusual labour issues, this had resulted in our service level not being what we expect but is isolated to a limited number of customers. I will reiterate, this is not acceptable.”

He offered Ms Mowbray a £300 discount as a “gesture of goodwill”. But if she chose to cancel, he said, her deposit would be returned within 10 days. She was refunded £150 when the Standard began to investigate.

A spokesman for Mr Khan said: “The Solar Together scheme is part of the plan to make London a zero carbon city, help Londoners with the cost-of-living crisis and make energy more affordable.

“iChoosr, our delivery partner, facilitates solar panel installation all over the UK and through the scheme the GLA has secured for Londoners discounts ranging from 18 per cent to 32 per cent (26 per cent for the current phase).

I care about the climate crisis but feel let down by the Mayor’s Solar Together scheme

“While there have been 3,300 successful solar installations in London since...2017, an exceptionally high level of demand over the past two years along with high energy prices and disruption to the global solar supply chain due to Covid, has affected solar panel installations across the UK and Europe. But customers experiencing very poor service from installers contracted by iChoosr and any failure to deliver on their commitments is unacceptable.

“The Deputy Mayor for Environment met the CEO of iChoosr on January 24 to raise the numerous complaints made by Londoners and the unacceptable service being offered by GET-UK. This was the latest in a series of meetings between the GLA and iChoosr.”

City Hall said installers must complete iChoosr’s rigorous pre-qualification process. Following the GLA’s intervention, iChoosr has put in place Installer Improvement Plans covering the overall programme.

Admitting there have been particular issues with GET-UK, a spokesman said iChoosr has been working closely with them to ensure lessons are learned and improvements made. These include GET-UK investing in their infrastructure, updating call centre software and changing the team structure to ensure earlier resolution of issues.