In November, the UK government set out a strategy to commit to creating a smaller, better and greener public estate by 2030, which will include measures such as retrofitting public sector buildings to aid energy efficiency. As the country has entered a period of economic uncertainty, the public sector is scrutinising energy and the consequential financial outputs even further.
Public sector buildings are just like any other building. However, to be able to function satisfactorily, and because of their unique uses, many have systems requiring regular monitoring and maintenance. This can be expensive and decrease the energy efficiency of the building.
An obvious example would be numerous local authority pool closures to reduce utility costs. With some authorities also citing the environmental impact of running sauna and spa pools as another justification for closure of these local facilities.
With the move to hybrid working, many administrative buildings that are increasingly expensive to maintain are no longer being fully utilised across all sectors. So now may be a natural time for public sector organisations, like others, to review property portfolios, and assess how any underused surplus space may be managed – whether that be through closing buildings or repurposing.
It was reported in December that Scottish Ministers are considering cutting the Scottish Government’s estate by 40 per cent. The staff swimming pool at Scottish Ministers offices at Victoria Quay was also closed last year to reduce costs, presumably also recognising the reduced climate impact.
While closing a public sector building will certainly be more energy efficient and may be a good cost saving exercise, they should take post-pandemic societal shifts into account too. While a building may no longer be used for its intended purpose, organisations should consider whether it could serve a new one.
For example, as people continue to work from home, departments could merge office space to free up floors that could be leased to other users. Space could also be reconfigured to support the changing needs of a semi-remote workforce, with access to touch down working space with reliable WiFi and the other support found in a traditional office space. These workspaces would be accessible within the '20-minute neighbourhood' - cutting commuting and reducing emissions.
Alternatively, unused spaces could be transformed into community hubs that could act as a central access point for local communities – hosting a range of necessary health and social services. Indeed, many such unused spaces were repurposed during the COVID-19 pandemic as vaccination centres.
There are however other options aside from closing buildings or reconfiguring them which could allow public sector buildings to be more energy efficient and less financially demanding. For example, assessing whether the buildings could collaborate and link with other local energy users to support a heat network project.
There is significant government funding available to support these projects to reduce energy emissions. Guidance has been issued to the public sector as to how to support these networks as a model for delivery of their utility supplies using low carbon infrastructure.
In Scotland, the government has established the Heat Network Support Unit, with funding available to suitable projects in both private and public sectors, as well as community led projects.
There are already examples of these projects underway across the UK which could clearly drive forward further cost savings whilst meeting climate targets. For example, the PIRI project in Peterborough was announced in December as one of the first UK national schemes to receive support from the Green Heat Network Fund. This fund provides capital grant funding for commercialisation and construction of new low and zero carbon heat networks, as well as the retrofitting and expanding of existing heat networks across England.
Once complete, the scheme will transport heat and electrical power from the Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) operated by Viridor in Fengate - and owned by Peterborough City Council - directly to city buildings via a series of underground pipes and cables. The ERF will generate energy by taking non-recyclable household waste that would otherwise go into landfill and using a combustion process to turn it into heat and electricity.
Compared with traditional energy supply, this is expected to be a significantly lower-cost and environmentally-friendly means of providing energy to buildings. Peterborough will make huge strides to net zero by 2030 through the PIRI project.
When public sector organisations see this type of project successfully delivered, it should inspire them to look at delivery of similar alternative energy solutions.
By conserving energy, the sector can enable organisations to work towards the UK government’s strategy to address the climate emergency and divert stretched budgets elsewhere.
And while closing doors is one means to that end, the public sector should also consider what the long-term options are to conserve energy and be more energy efficient. Whether that be through retrofitting the heating network within buildings or by ensuring that empty floors can be used for a different purpose, the public sector has plenty of options to think about.
This article was first published by Local Government News.
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