Friday, 24 June 2011

Taking a Break

Apologies to the few people who occasionally visit this blog for not posting anything in a while. I've been revising for final exams over the past few months, and, now that I've got them out of the way, I'm blogging collaboratively at Political Scrapbook. I may still post an occasional Suffolk story here -- these are still exciting times -- but most of my efforts will be directed towards either PS or job-hunting. Got to put food on the table, after all . . .

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mark Bee's Token of Transparency

I haven't yet posted anything about yesterday's election of Cllr Mark Bee as head of Suffolk County Council's controlling Conservative group, mainly because it seems slightly perverse to express too serious an interest in the internal machinations of a political faction with which I am in no way aligned, however significant they might be for the future of the county as a whole. Having declared his support for Bee a few minutes before the election, James Hargrave has been cautiously celebrating the result, and I agree with his call for a stop to SCC's myopic trailblazing ('leading on the edge of chaos' for the hell of it, and for the message it sends to CCHQ):
We don't want the county we love turned into a laughing stock nationally, a byword for wasteful and overpaid local governement [sic] with the Chief Executive literally all over the national papers. At times I have maybe said that Suffolk is a bit too sleepy and behind the times. Can we go back a bit more to those days Mark?
Meanwhile, Ipswich Spy has expressed reservations about Bee's likely approach (or lack thereof) to SCC's problematic Chief Executive Andrea Hill, citing his apparent reluctance to discuss the issue in his pre-election presentation, while fellow candidate Colin Noble "made an impressive presentation during the hustings about his views on Ms Hill, whose days would have been numbered under his leadership." Moving away from the symbolic problem of Hill, Andrew Grant-Adamson provides a more pragmatic assessment of Bee's obligations both to disaffected Tory backbenchers and to the political momentum of the NSD juggernaut: "The words 'New Strategic Direction' may be consigned to the Endeavour House dustbin, but it is clear that the policy of divestment will continue albeit in a more humane form."

For what it's worth, I thought I'd share a little fact that I discovered while doing some research yesterday morning. It turns out that, of the three candidates for the leadership -- Mark Bee, Colin Noble and Guy McGregor -- Bee is the only one to have his latest entry in the Register of Members' Interests available online and linked to on his Council profile page. This might have something to do with his position as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee (only two Committee members, Colin Hart and Anne Whybrow, have failed to do the same). Still, in view of the Council's questionable record on Freedom of Information and transparency, it seems like a pretty good sign.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Electricity Information and Bus Services

About a week ago, Suffolk County Council replied to my Environmental Information Regulations request concerning electricity usage at Endeavour House, the council's Ipswich headquarters. I asked for
(a) a record, if available, of the proportion of the building's annual 3,351,786 kWh electrical energy usage attributable to features inherent in the building itself, e.g. lighting, water heating, automatic doors, etc.;
(b) any records or inventories of mains-powered electrical equipment used in the building, e.g. computers, photocopiers, vending machines, etc., including quantities and model numbers;
(c) a record of the number of workers in the building with access to a personal computer or workstation, or to an equivalent shared facility (if the latter, please also provide details of the numbers between which a given computer is shared);
(d) a record of the total number of workers in the building.
In reference to point (a), the Information Compliance Officer explained that there are no records kept specifically for building-inherent electricity usage, which I found fair enough -- I half-expected this to be the case. A set of data was, however, provided in response to point (b). Unfortunately, the information was very badly formatted and difficult to use -- instead of a simple inventory of items and their quantities, I was presented with a huge, seemingly arbitrary list ("WATER HEATER, MAINS CORD (CLASS 1), WATER HEATER, DISH WASHER", etc.), in which I had to count up the individual appearances of each item in order to determine its quantity. What's more, there was no attempt to provide any detail beyond the most basic and generic descriptions -- certainly no model numbers or brand names, from which I'd hoped to calculate wattage and overall usage levels.

I've tidied up the data slightly, laboriously counting up the quantities, and have uploaded it to Google Docs here -- perhaps it will prove useful to somebody else. As for parts (c) and (d) of the request, "[t]here are 899 desktops in Endeavour House and 177 laptops assigned to users deemed to be based in Endeavour House", and "records show 1384 (contracts) and 111.72 (FTE) where the base location is stated as being Endeavour House." There's not really much that I can make from this without more specific information about the equipment and some comparative data from similar buildings/organizations, so I won't jump to any conclusions. Feel free to do so if you feel like it, though.

In other news, I've spent the past couple of days testing out Charsfield's re-configured bus services. As part of the council's 50% cuts to public transport subsidies, the 70 and 70A routes (both heavily dependent on council funding) have been re-contracted to the local company Carters Coaches -- until a few days ago, they were run by First Eastern Counties. Thankfully, there hasn't been any real change -- Charsfield happens to sit in the middle of a well-established (if slightly circuitous) Ipswich-Woodbridge route. Other services, particularly to the North-East of here, haven't been so lucky.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Energy at Endeavour House: A Closer Look

Avoiding doing any real work today, I had a chance to look in a bit more detail at the DCLG energy efficiency figures that were released the week before last. As mentioned in the previous post, I think it's worth keeping a relatively open mind about what the 'F' rating for Endeavour House might actually mean -- I'm no expert on sustainable architecture or engineering. Still, it seems odd that a building so frequently touted as 'environmentally friendly' and 'green' should have come out with such a low efficiency score three years running.

One way to get a better picture is to compare the Display Energy Certificate information for Endeavour House with that of similarly sized and similarly utilized buildings elsewhere in the country. Filtering the data for structures with similar floorspace (between 14,000 and 17,000m2), similar owners (local government) and identical energy/heating combinations (natural gas and air conditioning) yields, among others, the headquarters of Buckinghamshire County Council, Leicester City Council and Reading Borough Council.

Bucks is perhaps the most obvious comparison -- the head office of a rural County Council, with floorspace that differs from Endeavour House by only a few hundred square metres. The 2010 DEC for the building gives it a score of 119 and a rating of 'E', not quite meeting the target of 100 but still better than SCC's 138. Crucially, Fred Pooley's County Hall in Aylesbury is not a modern piece of 'sustainable building' but a classic example of mid-'60s brutalism, with all the attendant energy efficiency challenges.

Leicester is, obviously, a less perfect match, but its score is the best of the bunch at 106, almost pushing it into the 'D' bracket. The floorspace at New Walk Centre is just over 14,400m2, and, as the Advisory Report makes clear, it's a '[m]ulti-storey flat-roof office block; circa early 1970s construction'. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the serious recommendations in the report focus on issues like improving insulation and updating the glazing on windows -- the building's electricity usage, in kWh/m2/year, stands at 92, three points under the target ceiling of 95.

Reading, finally, shows a pattern of steady improvement over the three years in which certificates have been issued: 176 (G) in 2008, 138 (F) in 2009 and 116 (E) last year. Another monolithic '70s building, the Civic Centre has achieved these gains by cutting heating and electricity usage simultaneously -- the former now sits only a few points above its target.

Compared to these examples, the figures for Endeavour House become a bit clearer. As might be expected for a relatively new building, the heating appears to be working well, meriting a score of 47 where the 'typical' figure is almost 140. The electricity usage, on the other hand is shockingly high: 202 to the typical 110. This ties in with a number of recommendations in the latest assessment report, which describes the turning off of electrical equipment ('water heaters ... vending machines ... laminators, phone chargers, fax machines') as a 'high priority'.

I plan to submit an FOI request over the weekend to see if I can get a bit more information about the amount and type of equipment that SCC is using at Endeavour House. Until that comes back, we're left with some very strange figures. Greenest county?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Endeavour House rated 'F' for energy efficiency

Earlier this month, the Centre for Sustainable Energy released a swathe of data on the energy efficiency of UK public buildings, obtained from the DCLG via a Freedom of Information request. The Guardian then picked up on the story and mapped the entire dataset using Google Maps, making it easy to click around and compare local buildings — schools, hospitals, local government, etc. It turns out that Endeavour House, Suffolk County Council’s flagship ‘green’ office complex in West Ipswich, is rated a mere ‘F’.

Technically, this information has been available for a while. Since October 2008, in compliance with EU energy performance directives, all large public buildings have been required to undergo yearly assessments and to display the results prominently in the form of ‘Display Energy Certificates’ (these certificates are also available online, via the Non-Domestic Energy Performance Certificate Register, but require knowledge of a building’s 20-digit reference number.) Visitors to Endeavour House are greeted by a glass cabinet full of environmental awards and commendations right by the front door — perhaps not surprisingly, it does not include the certificate itself, which is hidden around a corner by the reception desk.

The building was bought half-finished from the defunct TXU Europe in 2003, for £16.75 million. According to the Council’s website, it ‘boasts a host of … environmental features’, including rainwater collection, ‘mini recycling centres’ and extensive solar panels. The annual power produced by the latter is estimated by the Council to be around 72,000 kWh, ‘about the same as the energy used by 20 houses’; Chelmsford firm Solar Green, responsible for installing the panels, reckon on a higher figure of 84,000 kWh, and note that ‘[a]t the time of construction this solar photovoltaic system was the largest of its kind in Europe and is still the largest building integrated solar pv system in the UK.’

The Display Energy Certificate, however, shows that it is barely producing 2% of the electricity used at Endeavour House, leaving the building with an annual carbon footprint of almost 2,000 tonnes and an Operational Rating of 138, where ‘100 would be typical for this kind of building’. (The rating for 2009 was slightly lower, at 136, but the figure of 147 in 2008 almost tipped the building into the very bottom bracket, ‘G’.) The building’s Advisory Report, issued at the same time as the latest certificate, gives fourteen recommendations for improvement, every one marked as potentially ‘high impact’.

There may well be more to this data than meets the eye — these sorts of centralized assessments are notorious for their heavy-handedness and inattention to detail. Still, the methodology seems solid and well thought-out, making provision for a broad range of buildings and functions. Perhaps the Council just needs to remember to switch the lights off now and then.