“It’s often a matter of life and death,” says James Anderson, when asked about the work he does. He’s not a paramedic, a heart surgeon, or a nurse on a Covid ward but it’s no exaggeration to say that his team of plumbers and heating engineers are saving lives.
He vividly recalls arriving at the home of one 84-year-old woman, who had asked for his help because she couldn’t afford to heat her home. Sensing her desperation, he dropped everything and drove to her home, where he found her attempting to take her own life.
“I kicked the door down, called the police and we fixed things for her,” says Anderson. “She didn’t want to end her life but she felt she had no one. Nobody would support her.”
It was one of thousands of calls he has responded to since setting up Depher (Disabled & Elderley Plumbing & Heating Emergency Repair) four years ago.
Some customers have been ripped off by unscrupulous contractors, others simply cannot afford boiler repairs, many are unable to heat their homes and are offered little help from government. Anderson’s team doesn’t charge them a penny for its services. Funding is provided through donations.
Customers have been so grateful they’ve called his engineers, variously, “angels” and “friends for life”.
“These people have a choice between heating and eating,” Anderson says. “We don’t have a choice but to help them.”
Fuel poverty already causes an estimate 9,700 deaths each year in the UK – all of them preventable. With Arctic weather expected to hit the UK this week, more people will face the terrible decision between food and warmth.
The government’s energy price cap jumped 12 per cent in October at the same time as millions of low-income households saw their incomes slashed by £1,040 a year when universal credit was cut.
An additional half a million people will be unable to afford adequate heating this winter, according to campaign group Fuel Poverty Action.
The problem is made worse by the fact that 400,000 people are estimated to be in rent arrears, with much of the debt built up during the series of lockdowns that disproportionately hit the incomes of poorer workers.
Covid has not only ravaged household budgets, it has upended global trade routes. There is an acute shortage of materials and spare parts for almost all types of construction work, plumbing and DIY.
The UK is also dealing with a severe lack of skilled labour, thanks to decades of underinvestment in training and the departure of EU workers after Brexit.
This chaotic mix of circumstances means Depher is on course for its busiest year since Anderson set it up in 2017. Back then he became angry about a minority of tradesmen ripping off vulnerable people. His passion to fix the situation has grown each week with the horrors he has seen.
“How are we supposed to make our country fairer when you have some idiots charging three, four, five times, what they should be?”, he asks.
“If you want to make 70 per cent profit, then work for someone with a million pounds in the bank, or a large corporation that can afford it, not someone on a state pension. That bill could be the difference between putting food on the table or not.”
Anderson is campaigning for a cap on the amount that people in vulnerable groups must pay for essential trades like electricity, plumbing and heating.
Despite rises to the state pension and a windfall for some from booming property values, the UK still has one of the highest rates of poverty among pensioners in Europe.
For low-income working families, 12 years of wage stagnation have caused a surge in in-work poverty. The UK also has the lowest rate of of basic unemployment benefit and statutory sick pay of any OECD country.
Anderson established Depher from his base in Burnley, Lancashire, as a non-profit Community Interest Company fixing boilers and central heating for free. Almost immediately, he realised how desperate the need was for the service.
Within a year, he had closed his profitable plumbing business to focus all of his time on Depher. This year, the services provided by his team of engineers are needed more than ever.
He remembers dozens of customers, reeling off story after story of the people he has helped. There was the family in Lancashire charged £6,000 for a bathroom that was left as “a deathtrap” with exposed wiring close to running water. Depher ripped the whole thing out and did it properly within a few days.
Then there was the time Depher answered the call of a woman with leukaemia on end-of-life care who had been told by a local plumber they couldn’t come out to fix her boiler for less than £2,000. Anderson found another contractor and paid for them to do the work immediately, at no charge.
From a focus on plumbing and heating, Depher has grown into a much broader community service. “If you are elderly, or in poverty, disabled, vulnerable, facing danger then tell us what you need.”
Anyone who is genuinely in need will get help, if Depher has people available, says Anderson. “We can sort out electric, gas, food deliveries, boilers, breakdowns, broken pipes, small jobs, big jobs, anything.”
The team has even provided surprise birthday parties and Christmas wish lists for some customers.
One customer, Jordan, called Depher after discovering that her elderly father-in-law had been living without heating in a “freezing” home. The family didn’t have the means to instal a new boiler so she contacted Depher on Facebook.
“They were so, so quick and helpful, just amazing,” says Jordan. “My father-in-law has multiple health issues and has been in and out of hospital. It means so much to him and to the family.”
Depher has already attracted some high-profile admirers. Green Party peer Jenny Jones recently called Depher’s engineers “heroes”, while Hugh Grant has donated £10,000 to the cause.
For Anderson, the service he provides is not only the right thing to do, it also makes financial sense for the country.
“We are a lifeline that protects the other lifelines, we answer calls from social services, from the NHS. We keep people out of hospital.
“If the government funded us properly we could save those other services an incredible amount of money.”
Anderson is looking to raise £250,000 to take Depher nationwide with a bigger team of engineers in the most deprived areas and a network of contractors elsewhere.
But his work doesn’t stop there. He’s now campaigning for political change, calling for a price cap on the cost of essential work for vulnerable groups.
“You need plumbing, heating and electrics to survive so those three trades should have a cap on what people can charge for customers who have a disability or are over a certain age, or below a certain income.”
He has written to Boris Johnson with his proposals but has yet to receive a response.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch