Energy minister Claire Perry has urged heat network operators to sign up to a voluntary best practice standard amid mounting concerns about the service that the budding sector is delivering to its customers.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) concluded in a study, which was published last year, that heat network customers enjoy less consumer protection than those using other energy services due to the lack of regulation governing the sector. In addition, customers of heat network cannot switch suppliers if they are dissatisfied with the service they are receiving.

The consumer watchdog recommended that Ofgem’s remit should be extended to the approximately half a million customers, which equates to around two per cent of total UK heating demand, using the 14,000 heat networks currently up and running in the UK.

The government is currently weighing up the CMA’s recommendations and will be publishing a public consultation later this year spelling out its plans for the future regulation of the sector, which has been identified by the Committee on Climate Change as a key plank in efforts to decarbonise the heating system.

In advance of these steps to beef up regulation, Perry has written to networks, urging them to sign up to the Heat Trust, a voluntary industry scheme that is designed to drive up service standards.

Networks registered with the Heat Trust must offer customer service standards comparable to those required by gas and electricity companies. These cover support for vulnerable consumers, responses to faults and emergencies, guaranteed service payments if supply is interrupted, transparency in metering and billing, and complaints handling, including access to the Energy Ombudsman.

“The quality standards that the voluntary scheme sets out will give your consumers important reassurance and protections,” writes Perry.

If smaller networks are unable to meet the Heat Trust standards, Perry encourages them to consider how they can be used to inform improvements on their own networks ahead of new regulatory requirements being introduced.

The letter follows the submission of evidence last week to London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is is pushing for greater uptake of district heating networks in his new plan for the capital, by fuel poverty campaigners detailing a litany of complaints about the poor service many customers of existing networks are receiving.

The Heat Trust recently extended its eligibility requirements in a bid to protect thousands more customers who receive heat through the district heating sector.