The plan of the municipality of Zutphen was green and progressive. A sustainable residential neighbourhood connected to one collective heating system. The corresponding thermal storage system, however, proves anything but sustainable, is very user-unfriendly and fails in several areas. The residents of the new residential area ‘de Teuge’ are faced with high energy bills immediately after completion of their home, unnecessary additional costs and a degradation of property enjoyment. In 2013, legal expenses insurers turned to De Haan Lawyers & Solicitors. Finally actual steps were taken!
Robert van den Breemen
When alderman Hans La Rose from the municipality of Zutphen admittedly speaks of a ‘failed experiment at the Ijssel’ during an evening forum years after contemplating, you would think that a solution for the victims is not far off. However, this appeared to not be the case, which board member Robert van den Breemen from the ‘de Teuge Organisation’ knows by now. The resident concerned, file holder and former president of both the buyers as well as the Teuge Organisation form a picture of the lingering issue between the municipality, thermal storage operator Vitens and the residents.
‘Low energy house’
The Zutphen-born resident had imagined it differently. ‘‘Zutphen is a fantastic place to live. When the opportunity arose for me to live close to my family in the Hoven (west of Zutphen) again in one of the ‘low energy houses’, beautifully designed by the municipality and builders, the choice was quickly made. Sustainable living at the location of your dreams; it couldn’t get better than this. However, they were forced to join the collective thermal storage system. "I thought it was fine, as it fitted with the sustainable intentions of this project. After a small calculation I did however, I had my doubts about the promised energy performance. Nevertheless, I trusted the builders and operators.”
Robert’s family experienced various discomforts immediately during the first winter. The family home’s heating system simply could not get heated sufficiently because of adjustment problems. "It was dramatic. My son could not play in his room and I was barely able to work in the study due to the cold. Also in the living room, where it should always be snug, it was not pleasant."
The cold in the house did not appear to be the only problem. "Showering was and is a drama. The boiler provides hot water for only seven minutes. Try to get your entire family showered within that time!” To top it all off, there is noise and vibration nuisance which is caused by the heat pump. The lack of heat, the shower problems and the noise sounds like a disruption of living. "It should be nice to be in your new home. But it’s not like that. "
"In six months time, de Haan has achieved what predecessors have been unable to do in three years!"
The first energy bills confirm Robert’s worry. "The bill was much higher than we were used to. That's because of the plodding system and the cost of additional heating. By comparison; we now consume at least forty percent more gas and electricity than in our old house, and this should be a 'low-energy house.’ The entire ‘sustainable neighbourhood’ even has forty percent more CO2 emissions than an average neighbourhood in Netherlands!"
Association of Buyers and Interest
Robert already became president of the buyers association during construction. "I'm quite outspoken and would be glad to supervise the construction on behalf of the buyers. After the delivery, I found out during neighbourhood barbecues that many other local residents had the same problems. Even the residents; the so-called phase 1. Something was wrong and that is why in 2009 the association changed to an interest association by necessity."
Dozens of individual complaints were about a collective of approximately 150 households. "The stories of many victims are harrowing. I have experienced the craziest things. None of the parties involved took responsibility, false promises were made. Stretching time, mud-slinging; it was almost an everyday occurrence.”
In 2010, the association suddenly received much evidence through an extensive study conducted by network operator Alliander. As a result of these reports, new forum meetings followed regarding the collective problems of the thermal storage project. Councillor Hans La Rose openly admitted to the failure of the project and launched yet another consultative body. He forgot that the association already has discussions at the Town Hall with very good arguments, facts and evidence.
“Early 2011, we realised that we were in need of a lawyer. After we had set up a legal working group, we finally made contact with a law firm. This firm has guided us for three years. However, few concrete steps followed. Therefore, during early 2013 the members of the association wanted the lawyer in question to leave.”
Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research
The independent Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research has been contacted in the meantime. New information surfaces which operator Vitens has been aware of for years already, but never told the residents. In addition, new technical evidence proves the shortcoming of the heat pump and it turns out that problems were due to imbalance in the heat pump since 2004 (completion phase 1 from the Teuge properties). In July 2011, a proposal to end the central thermal storage system follows. Operator Vitens proposes to split the follow-up process into a technical and a legal process. At the end of 2011, it appears that the most difficult phase of the process is in the past. A project manager has been appointed to design the conversion process and Van den Breemen transfers the presidency of the association after five years. The association ceases to exist not much later due to disagreements on the course to be followed.
Legal Expenses Insurers
From April 2013 onwards, the residents are no longer represented by the association or its lawyer. Everyone is once more on their own. When Vitens finally comes up with a very mediocre new proposal to resolve the problem permanently in October 2013, many people had had enough. Many went to their legal expenses insurer to personally start a legal attack, as did Van den Breemen.
Eventually one insurer contacted De Haan Lawyers & Solicitors in October 2013, and shortly thereafter Peter-Paul Bruens is presented to the group. Van den Breemen immediately makes his well-documented and fully electronic archive available. Bruens therefore recognises the opportunities quickly and outlines a clear damage process after establishing the breach of the municipality of Zutphen and Vitens. One of Bruens first acts was to set up ‘the Foundation Teuge’. Together with John Braam, Van den Breemen forms part of management. "Now only as an expert. John and I want to use our knowledge of the file, but not as initiators. Peter-Paul is welcome to do that now."
In the meantime, De Haan Lawyers came up with a concept summons within six weeks. "When I read the story and extensive appendices, I saw very clearly that two parties have made mistakes. The municipality of Zutphen is administratively responsible, but Vitens performed the project poorly. "Bruens added another clear damage report from an external expert to the comprehensive file in which the total damage of the people involved is well documented. In January 2014, the municipality of Zutphen and Vitens are summoned on behalf of the foundation and the parties are held liable for the failure of the heat pump project.
More than 120 participants joined the foundation. The growing number of participants even caused the summons to be re-served.. "Peter-Paul swiftly took documents and turned them into an impressive translation fit for the legal system. He presents the legal route clearly and he is honest with participants about the chances of success. In six months he has done what predecessors failed to do in three years!"
The majority of the inhabitants had by now indicated their intention to stop with the failed thermal storage project and use the option Vitens offered them in October 2013 to switch to an alternative heat supply such as a gas-fired boiler. Residents would then receive a supplementary compensation of € 3,750 as a final settlement. Bruens finally had to threaten with summary proceedings to achieve a proposal without a final settlement for the residents. That has now been achieved, so that the technical solution can be implemented.
Meanwhile, the main proceedings continue and the non-performances of the municipality of Zutphen and Vitens have been reported to the court. After that, there will be individual damage proceedings.
Robert is now confident again. "At some point, the municipality of Zutphen initiated this project and wanted to complete it with the best of intentions, but the project has been granted to the commercial market, which is when other forces come into play. There are forces with which you cannot cope on your own in the even of a setback. We ended up seeking the assistance of De Haan Lawyers in order to resolve the matter. I would like my home to be nice and warm again with a reliable heating system and reimbursement of costs and investments made. The new system is coming and I have confidence in the proceedings against the municipality and Vitens."
Peter-Paul Bruens about the ‘de Teuge’ file
‘'It was completely locked. A legal assistance insurer requested me to provide them with litigation advice. I then set up a foundation and initiated legal proceedings. The summons were issued in January and there appears to be a sub-area where an arrangement with operator Vitens has been made. My clients can opt for a different system than the thermal storage system and Vitens pays for the cost of conversion."
For Bruens, the dynamics of this case are particularly interesting. "This is a large group of stakeholders with differing individual situations. The fact is that these people were never given what they were promised; an efficient, energy-saving heating system. "Board members Robert van den Breemen and John Burr receive a compliment from Breuns. “They make for a strong voice and provide great input. Therefore I can make great progress."