‘It hits you when people say they can’t afford milk’: the superhero plumber who keeps his community warm

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: Alicia Canter/the Guardian

In March 2017, heating engineer James Anderson received a call that would change his life. The man on the other end had just been told he needed a new boiler, but wanted a second opinion. Anderson drove from his home in Burnley. When he arrived, he found an elderly man in bed. He needed a hoist to get up, and had carers visiting every day.

The man had no hot water, and the kitchen radiator was making a clanking noise. But none of Anderson’s usual fixes worked. “I was scratching my head,” he says, “wondering what was going on with this boiler.” In a last effort, he opened the tank. There was a magazine floating in it. The previous engineer had stuffed it in there so he could make £5,500 installing a new boiler.

Anderson was incensed. “This engineer had totally taken advantage of someone who couldn’t fend for himself,” he says. Anderson phoned the engineer’s company and raised hell. They sent someone to install a new boiler, and gave the man £1,000 in compensation.

Since that day, Anderson has worked to protect other vulnerable people from exploitative or unaffordable heating bills. He founded Depher, a community interest company (he is in the process of turning it into a registered charity) that provides free or heavily subsidised plumbing and heating services to people on low incomes and other vulnerable groups. Around 30% of Depher’s funding comes from donations, although it’s always a struggle to get enough. The rest comes from Anderson’s own pocket. When he launched Depher, he closed his profitable plumbing and heating business without thinking twice.

“I’m 54,” Anderson says. “I’ve been on the holidays, had the nice car and eaten in the fancy restaurants. I don’t need to experience those again. It’s my pleasure and duty to help those who are less well-off.”

90% of the people we help are living on the poverty line without telling anyone

To date, Depher has helped 19,000 people, at a cost of £1.2m. “He’s just so kind,” says Lynn Shirraf, a pensioner from Burnley. Depher fixed her boiler last week. If she’d had to pay for the repairs, she’d have had to cut back on heating or food. A neighbour told her about Depher. “It makes you feel better about human nature,” she says. “People do care.”

Running Depher has taught Anderson about the hidden poverty in his home town. “It made me realise that you can walk past a house,” he says, “and it can look normal. But you don’t know what’s going on inside. Of the people we help, 90% are living on the poverty line without telling anyone.”

In December 2019 he visited a young couple with two small sons. “They were freezing cold,” says Anderson. “When the mum was talking to me, her bottom lip was shaking.” Two engineers had already charged £40 each without fixing the problem. The family couldn’t afford more repairs. Anderson fixed the boiler at no charge. “The mum sat there crying,” he remembers. “She said to me, ‘All I want is to keep my children warm.’”

These are people in this country, Anderson continues, who don’t count their pounds, but their pennies. Many of them are living on a state pension, or are single parents claiming universal credit (this October the government ended the universal credit uplift of £20 a week.)

“The cost of living in this country is horrendous,” says Anderson. “There was one man last week who said, ‘milk used to cost £1.09 in Aldi. This week, it went up to £1.15. Is it going to get to the point where I can’t afford to buy milk for my child?’ That hits home, when someone says that.”

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Now, with soaring gas prices, he worries how people already struggling will cope. On the day we speak, Anderson has just returned from fixing a pensioner’s boiler. She told him she was already paying an extra £100 a month for gas and electricity, which she can scarcely afford on the state pension.

Anderson believes, with an almost religious fervour, in the power of community. “We’ve got a duty as humans,” he says, “to care for the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable – not to ignore them and say it’s someone else’s problem.”

When I ask to do something nice for Anderson, he tells me that he wants to donate his treat to his community. He asks whether I can arrange some gift boxes so he can distribute them to people in need. I contacted Lush, which agreed to provide 50 boxes of bath bombs and other treats. Anderson dropped half of them off at a local care home. He plans to distribute the remaining boxes to a women’s refuge. “I don’t mean for this to sound cheesy,” Anderson says seriously, “but it was lush. The residents were looking forward to it all week. They can’t wait to smell beautiful.” He plans to keep one box to raffle to raise funds for Depher.

Making something nice happen for his local community “felt beautiful”, Anderson says. “It’s not about getting a reward. It’s about that feeling of humanity you get when people work together. Imagine how much better this country could be, if everyone pulled together.”

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