“We have a great reputation in the industry”: the day the gas man broke into my house

Catching fire. Image: Getty.

So my wife is on the phone to me and crying. And I am angry.

Let’s just preface this by pointing out that I’m not angry at her. My wife is awesome. No, I’m angry because something has really, really upset her.

It’s the Tuesday after Easter. It’s a lovely, sunny day. I am in a good mood. But when I pick up the phone, for a second, all I hear is the crying.

Then my wife says, “Someone’s just been in the flat.”

All kinds of terrible scenarios are playing out in my mind. “Are you okay?” I ask.

“There were two men,” she tells me. “I woke up when I heard voices in the bathroom.”

Then she says: “They showed me a warrant.”

They were bailiffs. In our flat.

Of course, I’m aware of “tenant flit”, in which tenants leave houses without paying their bills, resulting in months, even years, of increasingly red letters demanding payment. You can send the letters back with “not at this address” on them, but a lot of the time it doesn’t do much good. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs is still asking for payments from someone in a downstairs flat in our house, three years after he moved out.

We’ve even had a bailiff turn up at the front door before. He was very polite: I told him that the person he was after had moved out two years previously, and after showing him some ID and our tenancy agreement, he went away without a fuss.

So – had I forgotten to return some post? Was this my fault somehow?

 “I was shaking,” my wife is telling me. “He kept telling me to ‘calm down’ – like that ever worked with anyone who needed calming. I asked him how he got in. He said: ‘Locksmith. We did knock,’ and pointed at the guy by the door.”

Then, she told me, she looked at the warrant.

“‘This is a warrant for 16a,’ I told him. ‘We’re 12a.’ Then he said they’d made a mistake, and they just left.

“They didn’t even apologise.”

And this is why I’m angry.

“They said I should have opened the mail even though it was not for me: I thought that was against the law!”

A few moments later, despite the shock and fright of literally experiencing her worst nightmare, my wife has taken photos of the bailiff’s car and sent them to me.

Now I know our intruder was someone we’ll call Richard, working for a company called Richburns Ltd, working for British Gas “in pursuance of outstanding debts on gas and electricity accounts”.

Now I have targets to aim for, and I want to do something. I’m on a one-man mission to get three things: an apology for my wife, some form of retribution against our quasi-burglar, and some kind of systemic change in how British Gas bailiffs operate.

It’s time to employ my evil journalist powers for good.

It’s time to Tweet.

I cry havoc and unleash the 140 characters of war: three Tweets explaining what’s happened, another with the pictures that my wife took of Richard’s signs.

And then I wait. Soon, some very nice friends and acquaintances are retweeting me. And so are their followers.

While I wait, I do some research into Richburns to see what kind of company it is. It advertises itself as a “provider of services to the energy market”.

And it’s true. Richburns has been used by numerous energy companies over the years, including ScottishPower, EDF and E.on.

It was founded by former British Gas employee George Ritchie, who accepted voluntary redundancy when the company was privatised. It proudly advertises that “our 63 clerical staff are largely ex British Gas employees". It's basically billing itself as “British Gas, but without the actual gas” – you get the feeling that they’d all still be working there if they could.

And virtually every page  of its web site has the title “Debt Management – Richburns Ltd – Debt Recovery to the Energy Market”. There’s also a specific debt management page:

We manage any debt passed to us from "cradle to grave". We will only cease action when advised the account is resolved during one of our stage checks with your office.

Google and Twitter searches for the company reveal all manner of complaints. Some refer to receiving threatening letters, sent to people who were up to date with payments, or describe what a lovely company it is to work for. You can even watch it in action on YouTube.

Perhaps the most upsetting, though, is this one. (I’ve cleaned up the punctuation, but left the wording unchanged)

I moved into my house a year and a half ago and signed up with n power. Two months later I returned home from work to find a letter on my sofa from Richburns. They had come with a locksmith while I was at work and entered my property to turn of the electricity supply, because I did not respond to previous correspondence from them.

I would just like to add the reason I did not respond was because the previous correspondence was in the previous tenants name – it was not even my bill it was hers, but they still went ahead and got a locksmith. When I phoned them they said I should have opened the mail even though it was not for me: I thought that was against the law!

They harassed me from November right up until April the following year and just would not believe that I was not the person they were looking for.”

Now, I can’t be sure how accurate any of this is: it’s the internet. But it doesn’t exactly improve my perception of the company that just broke into my house.

It’s also intriguing that there are so many complaints online, some of them dating back years – yet Richburns is still used by energy companies. How much of this is because they’re good at the job – and how much is because the energy companies want plausible deniability for unpleasant tactics?

Soon enough, “Jamie” from @britishgashelp replies to my Tweets.

This is British Gas’s first mistake. Had Jamie said something along the lines of, “We apologise unreservedly. We’ll make sure the man in question is disciplined/fired/hung drawn and quartered and that we change all our processes to make sure this never happens again,” I’d probably have stopped right there.

But the bland corporate indifference and feigned concern rubs me up the wrong way.

And soon, everyone’s retweeting that, too.

Before you know it, I’m a Twitter moment.

Click to expand.

Meanwhile, Jamie, whose similarity to a Tweetbot and dissimilarity to a concerned human being would flummox any Turing Test, has sent me three carefully prepared, carefully labeled Direct Messages. The gist is that gas companies have a legal right to inspect meters; that Richburns was actually acting on behalf of NPower, and carrying the wrong paperwork; and that British Gas will intervene to make sure they carry the right paperwork in future.

Click to expand.

You may have noticed – and this is a theme that will crop up later – an almost audible sigh of relief. This wasn’t us. This was NPower.

It doesn’t matter that Richburns is run by ex-British Gas people on British Gas lines and frequently doing work for British Gas. It doesn’t matter that it’s just luck this didn’t happen on a British Gas job. All that matters is that the warrant was issued for another power company.

The only thing British Gas wants to stop, the only process it wants to change at its partner company? People sticking its credentials up when they’re not working for British Gas. That they’ll have words about.

“We have a great reputation in the industry”

Jamie also tells me that Richard wasn’t acting as a bailiff but as a gas safety meter inspector.

And this leads us to a little fillip in the law. Energy companies are legally obliged to check the safety of meters every few years. This is a sensible thing to do. Thank you, nanny state.

But what happens if the libertarian militia leader who lives down the road is refusing utility companies access to his home because of Big Government, while simultaneously using his gas meter to light his cigarettes with? Well, you kind of want energy companies to be able to legally force their way in, don’t you, if only to stop your entire street exploding?

And so, the Rights of Entry, Gas and Electricity (Boards) Act 1954, Section 2 (Amended 1995), gives them to right to enter premises – if necessary by force. This is something Richburns is apparently happy to point out:

Click to expand.

The odd thing here is that the law trusts meter inspectors far more than it trusts bailiffs, even if – as in this case – they’re the same people. So Richburns, wearing its bailiff’s hat, isn’t allowed to break in without the police present; but wearing its safety inspector’s hat, it’s perfectly entitled to break into your property without anyone watching except the locksmith who helped him or her break in. Just as long as it’s got a valid court order.

Richard also has a story. Firstly, that he’d apologised. (He didn’t.) Secondly, that he knocked. Which is odd, given that we have an extremely loud, extremely visible doorbell by the front door in perfect working order, that he didn’t bother to ring even once before gleefully putting his locksmith buddy to work.

Thirdly, that our door was open. Again, that’s odd. No one leaves their door open in this part of south east London. You just don’t. Odd, also, because we have two doors, one to the house itself and one to our flat. Were both doors meant to be open?

(When I later speak to my father, who used to work for the Citizens Advice Bureau, he says claiming a door is open “is a standard dodge used by less-than-reputable firms” to get into flats to which they have no legal right of access. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that Richard is deploying the exact same excuse.)

There’s still more odd. Our gas meter isn’t even in our flat – it’s by the staircase leading up to our flat. The gas meter safety inspector rushed straight past our gas meter so that he could break into our flat to inspect our gas meter.

So to sum up – our gas safety inspector turned up at the wrong address, stuck the wrong identification in his car, didn’t bother to ring the doorbell, broke into the wrong house, failed to identify the gas meter he might have been trying to inspect, broke into the wrong flat, frightened someone at home by herself, identified himself as a bailiff despite being there to inspect a gas meter, left without leaving his ID, contact number or even an apology, and then lied about it.

Great.

Still, one thing’s clear now: it’s an NPower job, so I need to retarget my Twitter campaign on @NPowerHelp.

At first, things seem much as with @britishgashelp – empty words. But soon, I’m in a DM conversation with Bev.

Bev is the PR Manager for NPower. Bev is who “Jamie” would like to be when he grows up.

This is more like it.

It’s about 12.30 now and things are escalating pretty quickly. Having become a Twitter Moment, I’ve come to the attention of Evening Standard journalist Laura Proto who’d like to write about what happened.

There’s some more back and forth with Bev, who tells me that Richard’s boss George, the managing director of Richburns, has been trying to call so he can apologise personally. (We’ve not noticed any of these calls, admittedly; but at least we have his number now.) Laura’s article is published , and I’m getting enquiries from other journalists who saw my Twitter Moment.

Look at my mighty powers now.

And then, to my incredible surprise, I get a new DM from Bev.

Wow. Twitter and journalism have united to effect change. We may not be able to bring down governments any more, but with a few digital pitchforks and a bit of publicity, the right thing can happen.

Justice is done.

Nearly.

Unless someone’s deliberately breaking into a property to steal things, they’re not committing a crime

That night, my wife tells me what she’s been up to. The first thing she did that morning after sending me the photos was to call the number on Richard’s British Gas credentials. After all, he showed no identification to prove who he was; for all we knew, he was just a burglar with a bit of paper.

The interesting thing about Richard’s British Gas ID is it’s useless. Ring the number, and you’ll find you’ll need an extension number to get any further. There’s no operator. Even if there were, who are you supposed to ask for: can you read the signature on that note?

So my wife rings the British Gas call centre and asks to talk to someone about what’s happened. The woman she speaks to isn’t quite sure who to redirect the call to. “Do you mind holding while I find out?” Half an hour later, my wife’s still on hold.

What all this means is that there is literally no way for most people to tell if there person who’s turned up at their door is a genuine British Gas debt collector or someone who’s just bought a printer and a laminator.

So, my wife then emails both the local court and Richburns. And then she calls the police.

The police tell her something that Twitter has already been telling me: Richard hasn’t broken the law. Despite numerous American films and TV series conditioning the letters “B and E” into our collective consciousnesses as a crime, unless someone’s deliberately breaking into a property to steal things, they’re not committing a crime.

Mistakenly breaking into someone’s house when you have a warrant is not a crime. You can, if you have the time and money, take your accidental burglars to court and sue them for “trespass” – but an Englishman’s home is very much his castle, in that people can more or less take guided tours around it, if they so wish.

What to do now? We have Bev’s number. We have George’s number. Richard’s been suspended, pending a full investigation. By now, the only thing we still want is an assurance that this will never happen again to anyone else.

That night, we sleep with the key in the front door and a chair up against it.

The law trusts meter inspectors far more than bailiffs, even if they’re the same people

There is, of course, one person who’s been overlooked in all of this: 16a. Did Richard ever make it as far as 16a or did he leg it immediately? Was he coming as a bailiff, like he said he was, or as a gas meter safety inspector like everyone else said he was?

So first thing Wednesday morning, I get in touch. “It’s funny, I thought someone had been in my flat when I got home last night,” she says. “There was a letter on the side saying they’d been.”

It turned out that yes, the letter said she’d had a safety inspection – but this was the first she’d heard about it. The call ended with 16a feeling disconcerted that someone had broken into her flat without her even knowing about it.

That afternoon, my wife tries to call George from Richburns, but can’t get through. She leaves a voicemail. He calls her back in the evening, but she’s on a train and misses him.

She looks very tired and shaken up when she gets home. Wednesday night, we sleep with the key in the front door and a very heavy cupboard up against it.

Thursday, we hear nothing from either NPower or Richburns. That evening my wife, who runs her own company and has beaten up muggers, says she hasn’t the courage to call either party.

So on Friday, I make some calls.

Bev from Npower tells me how upset and amazed she was by what had happened – George was, too, she says. “It’s just a catalogue of errors.”

Then she says: “We’d like to offer you a goodwill gesture as an apology.” Richburns and NPower are each going to send us three-figure cheques.

We’re not going to say no. But I want to know what’s going to change. How is this going to be stopped from happening again? They’re working on that. And could I be sent a copy of the report of their decision?

For the first time, Bev fails the PR Turning Test: she’ll “look into arranging that”. This is clearly not the same as “Yes”.

I ask her about 16a. “I’ve spoken with operations about this. They say she should have received three letters, then a home visit, then another letter, before the application for a court order. It’s expensive for us to do that, so we don’t want to do it unless we have to.”

Yet Npower does seem to take the expensive option, even when it’s unnecessary – or at least to threaten it. And it seems from her answers as if no one’s rung 16a to find out if she received those letters.

An Englishman’s home is very much his castle, in that people can more or less take guided tours around it, if they so wish

When I finally speak to George, he’s as upset as Bev and is similarly placatory. “This is the first time something like this has ever happened.” (I checked online, and this seems to be true of Richburns – but on the bottom of that Metro article, someone has written, “Happened to me. British Gas broke into my downstairs neighbours flat instead of mine. His door hasn't shut properly ever since. Oops.”)

So what went wrong, I ask? “He had a warrant for 12a in another road. 12a was fresh in his mind when he went to your road. What’s supposed to happen is that he’s supposed to tell the locksmith the address where they should meet and then go there separately. This time, he said, ‘Follow me,’ and they went together.”

Why didn’t he check the number? “He was supposed to.”

Why didn’t he show any identification? “He was supposed to.”

Why didn’t he apologise to my wife and leave some contact details? “He was supposed to.”

And that was the full investigation.

What’s going to happen to Richard, I wonder. “I told him: ‘You’ll be lucky to keep your job,’” George says.

Which is where my mind boggles, a bit. George is MD of the company. He’s the man who can decide whether Richard should be dismissed or not. Yet rather than using his own moral compass, he appears to be relying on the gods to tell him what to do. Reading between the lines, it appears he’s waiting for NPower to tell him what his decision should be.

When I put it to him that Richburns doesn’t have a great reputation online, he says: “That’s the nature of the work we do. But we have a great reputation in the industry.” George cares about whatever his clients care about, it seems.

But he does care about his staff, too. Richard’s worked for him for five years and “he’s never had a problem with him”. He doesn’t want to sack him, despite everything that happened.

And then George says: “If you’d told me, ‘I want this man dismissed’, I’d have dismissed him.”

And suddenly, I’m Zeus and Richard’s fate is in my hands.

George has already told me about the firm’s procedures. There are audits every three months, where someone follows Richard and the others out on jobs to make sure they’re following procedure. There’s a training manual that everyone has to follow.

These procedures should already have stopped it from happening. The idea of any kind of double-checking, independent verification, oversight, taking of physical evidence, et al – these aren’t things that George is considering. There are procedures for this, and if everyone follows procedures, it won’t happen. Nothing needs to change, except for people to follow procedure.

But our inspector didn’t follow procedure. He turned up at the wrong address, stuck the wrong identification in his car, didn’t bother to ring the doorbell, broke into the wrong house, failed to identify the gas meter he might have been trying to inspect, broke into the wrong flat, frightened someone at home by herself, left without leaving his ID, contact number or even an apology, and then quite blatantly lied about it.

What precise retraining is going to persuade Richard to follow procedure in future?

Zeus hesitates. After all, it’s a man’s livelihood at risk. And Richard quite literally knows where we live.

But it’s the right thing to do.

 “I want him dismissed.”

George agrees. But three times in the subsequent conversation George pauses so I can stay my decision. He really doesn’t want to let Richard go. Why should he? People just need more training, that’s all.

The next day, a cheque arrives from Richburns by special delivery, followed shortly by flowers for my wife. George seems genuinely very sorry about the whole thing. I feel sorry for George.

“There no real oversight here, nothing to stop them doing what they did”

Despite being nervous that Richard is going to destroy our lives and break in as soon as we leave, we go out for lunch.

“So how are you going to conclude your article?” my wife asks. “Something about process,” I reply. “There’s no real oversight of the industry here, nothing really to stop them doing what they did. You just have to rely on the right people doing the right thing.” We ended up with Bev. We could have had another Jamiebot, and things would have worked out very differently.

“It is about people,” my wife agrees. “But it’s about knowing the right people. If it had been my aunt, instead of me, she wouldn’t have known what to do. She’d still be at home, frightened, afraid to go out. But you knew how to use social media and how to talk to the right people.”

My wife is awesome. She’s also correct. Ultimately, it was publicity that got anything happening here. If the right people hadn’t retweeted me, Twitter wouldn’t have got me anywhere.

And, as you may have noticed, most of my research was conducted using the internet. How many 70 year olds who’ve gone through the same experience as my wife did would have blogged or Tweeted about it for others to discover what happened?


To be fair to George and NPower, the law is weak. There is no regulatory body telling them what to do in these situations. They basically have to work it out for themselves.

And, amongst other things, they’ve decided it’s a good plan to employ people as both bailiffs and meter safety inspectors. I find myself wondering how much cognitive dissonance it creates for the employees. “Remind me, am I supposed to be respectful, polite and good with tools on this job? Or am I supposed to be ready for it all to kick off at any point and to scare the crap out of people while I take their possessions?” Clearly it confused Richard, who identified himself as a bailiff while on a gas safety inspection.

Still, if we made “breaking and entering” a crime no matter what, not only would the job of the police be a lot easier, bailiffs, safety inspectors and bailiff/safety inspectors would all be a lot more worried about breaking into the wrong properties. If the law for safety inspections was the same as for bailiffs, with police oversight required for any forced entries, we’d have the same outcome.

Instead, we don’t: we have to seek redress directly from the firms who get things wrong. We can either sue – or we can hope they do the right thing.

Whether it always requires a Twitter storm and two newspaper articles to make them do the right thing, I can’t personally say.

In the end we received apologies and good will gestures from both NPower and Richburns. But we never received a copy of the report of the investigation, or details of any changes to process – so whether anything’s going to change in the long-term or not, I don’t know.

The other week, ironically, we needed a gas meter safety inspection. Our landlord gave my wife’s number to the inspection company. They called her. She arranged to meet them at 3pm at our house. Maybe this new fangled “telephone” might have some advantages over three letters, a visit, more letters and court order.

But 3.30pm rolled round and nothing. Then she noticed the van outside our house and so she knocks on their window.

“Are you here to inspect our meter?” she asks of the guys inside.

“Yeah. We’ve been here since 3 o’clock!” comes the reply.

Perhaps George was right, and the entire industry really does need retraining in the mysterious arts of “ringing doorbells” or “recognising gas meters”.

And, oh yes. We’ve finally stopped sleeping with a chair up against the door. Chances are, it’ll never happen to us again.

But how about you?

 
 
 
 

What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.