A CONSUMER watchdog has raised concerns over whether low carbon district heating schemes increasingly used at high profile developments to cut energy bills actually offer a fair deal after finding widespread dissatisfaction with costs and poor customer service.

Which? has called for Scottish Government action to better protect consumers after officials announced ambitious new targets earlier this month that would see Scotland deliver five times more heat through district heating to help Scottish householders and businesses lower their energy bills.

The proposals commit the Scottish Government to quadruple the number of homes on district heating by 2020, from 10,000 to 40,000 homes.

There are already a number of high profile projects using district heating including Glasgow's Commonwealth Games' Athletes Village and Emirates Arena with other networks planned by Glasgow's City Council throughout the city.

But Which? says the majority of Scottish homes connected to mains gas, district heating schemes are not regulated so many customers have no opportunity to switch supplier or right to redress should the service they receive fail to meet expectations.

Heat networks are designed to provide heat to clusters of buildings through a system of insulated pipes carrying hot water - eliminating the need for individual homes and businesses to generate their own heat. Heat is distributed from a central location from sources, such as rivers or mine water, biomass, energy from waste or recovered heat.

Which? after conducting a series of focus groups and telephone interviews to understand consumer concerns it found some estates agent were not being up-front about heating costs meaning that prospective tenants are "given inadequate information, or even misled", before moving in.

The consumer group said long contracts with suppliers meant customers were tied in and could not switch and that there was difficulty in working out whether heating bills are fair and accurate, fuelled by "unclear billing and doubts over how efficiently their scheme is run".

Which? said consumers were being let down by poor customer service and complaints handling, with many having no access to Ombudsman schemes or independent redress if things go wrong.

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: "While district heating schemes may have some environmental benefits, there are real questions over whether they offer a fair deal to customers. We found widespread consumer dissatisfaction, with costs and poor customer service among the key concerns.

"Our report raises a number of red flags, and Scottish government and regulators must act to improve consumer protection and review pricing to ensure it is fair. The Scottish Government has made positive noises about protecting district heating customers and we now need to see these fine words turned into fine deeds."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman: said: "The Scottish Government has set out plans to improve consumer protection in the Heat Generation Policy Statement, through introduction of the Heat Network Regulations, working closely with Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) to ensure that common standards are implemented across the UK, and working with industry to develop the Heat Trust which has just been launched.

"We will be gathering a great deal of information through the Heat Network Regulations that will allow us to make informed decisions about the next steps to improve consumer protection."

It had set up the Special Working Group of the Expert Commission on District Heating to provide advice to Government on options, including issues such as price regulation.

The spokeswoman added: "We monitor closely the implementation of projects funded by the District Heating Loan Fund. The Energy Saving Trust recently published an evaluation of the scheme which included focus groups with customers, and demonstrated significant cost savings were being delivered.

"We welcome the report by Which?, which will further inform the work of the Special Working Group and will consider Which?'s recommendations going forward."

Dr Tim Rotheray, Director of the Association for Decentralised Energy, said: that many of the recommendations made in the Which? report are already being proactively addressed by industry.

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: "District heating is far more environmentally friendly than using individual gas boilers and the system will contribute to carbon reduction targets in the city. It also has safety benefits for residents."

Around 210,000 UK households are currently connected to district heat networks with the Government predicting this could rise to eight million by 2030.