Collaborating on efficiency

31st October 2014


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Im-seong Choi

the environmentalist learns how Defra and Interserve are working together to make the department more sustainable

In December 2008, Defra signed an outsourcing agreement with facilities management and support services company Interserve. The financial scale and duration of the contract – around £750 million over 15 years – was not particularly remarkable, but the sustainability targets attached to the deal distinguished it from many other facilities management (FM) contracts. It also differed from typical FM contracts in that Interserve is also responsible for more strategic services, such as energy management.

At the time, the sustainable built environment workplace support contract (SBEWSC) covered 186 sites, including laboratories and offices, and required Interserve to achieve annual savings and continuing cost reductions over the 15-year term of the contract; to invest in the Defra estate to achieve sustainability targets for waste and recycling, energy and water consumption, carbon emissions and biodiversity; and to improve sustainability and environmental performance through, for example, behaviour change and more efficient accommodation use.

Almost six years into the contract, how is it working? Is Interserve meeting its performance targets? What has changed since 2008? These are some of the questions put to Mark Hoult, head of built environment sustainability at Defra, and Rebecca Vowles, head of sustainability, civil government at Interserve.

Moving targets

Much has changed since the deal was struck in 2008. New pan-government environment and sustainability targets were set in 2011, while all central government departments have had to make financial savings, which in Defra’s case has resulted in a significant reduction in its estate.

The targets in the original contract were related to the then administration’s sustainable operations on the government estate (SOGE) goals. Introduced in 2006, the SOGE targets included: a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions from government offices by 2010/11, relative to 1999/2000 levels; departments to reduce waste arisings by 5% by 2010, relative to 2004/05 levels; and cutting water consumption by 25% on the office and non-office estate by 2020, relative to 2004/05 levels.

SOGE targets were replaced in April 2011 by the greening government commitments (GGC). Like SOGE, the GGCs focus on a number of high-level targets. These are to be achieved across the lifetime of the current parliament (2010–15), and include: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions across the whole government estate and business-related transport by 25%, from a 2009/10 baseline; and cutting the amount of waste produced by government departments by 25%, against 2009/10 levels. The water target is to reduce consumption towards a best practice benchmark of less than 6m3 per full time equivalent employee a year.

In addition to this, in 2010, the new government set an “in-year target” for central government departments to cut carbon emissions by 10% in 12 months.

Defra’s network estate programme aims to significantly reduce the annual running cost of its estate. This means the department is reducing the number of sites it operates. In London, for example, one office has replaced three; while across the country, Defra and its network bodies are increasingly co-locating with other public sector bodies to make better use of space. The closures have saved money, but have done little to reduce Defra’s total carbon emissions. “We have been downsizing the estate and closing office buildings, but the overall carbon footprint has not been majorly affected,” says Hoult.

That is because two sites – the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) site near York and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) laboratories site at Weybridge – account for a significant element of Defra’s energy consumption. The Defra estate consists of “office” and “non-office” facilities, such as laboratories. The non-office estate consumes about 75% of the total energy consumed by Defra and its executive agencies; and the York and Weybridge operations consume about 90% of the non-office energy use. “Operations at these facilities dwarf everything else,” says Hoult.

He points out that the Interserve contract covers only around 40% of the combined floorspace of Defra’s sites, however. “The Environment Agency, Kew Gardens and Forestry Commission are outside contract,” he explains, adding that the agency sites alone constitute around half of the department’s overall floorspace. Sites served by Interserve, nonetheless, account for 50% of Defra’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, which in 2012/13 totalled more than 112,000 tonnes.

The rationalisation of the estate does present Interserve with a specific challenge. It means that projects to reduce energy use, for example, have to pay back within the lease period. “We understand that rationalisation is the right thing for Defra and is actually producing energy savings. It is about getting the right balance between the potential carbon savings and the return on investment,” says Vowles.

Ongoing performance

Vowles says that while the switch from SOGE to GGC targets did not present too much of a change for Interserve, achieving the interim 12-month target, set immediately by the new government in 2010, was more challenging. “We had 12 months to find a further 10% saving from about 50 offices nationwide, having already been reducing emissions from these sites,” she says. In the event, Interserve needed to reduce carbon emissions from these offices by 10.18%, which is equivalent to 1,298 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2). Across the whole Defra estate, emissions over the 12-month period declined by 11.7% or 1,496 tCO2. “That’s equivalent to driving a diesel-fuelled Ford Fiesta to the Moon and back 20 times,” says Vowles.

In terms of the SOGE targets, the parts of the Defra estate serviced by Interserve had, by 2010/11, reduced carbon emissions by 36.4% compared with 1999/2000 levels, while waste arisings were 29.9% lower and recycling levels up by 40.8%.

The most recent GGC data (2013/14) reveals that across the Interserve managed estate, carbon savings since 2009/10 total 17.5%, and emissions have declined by 19% across the whole of Defra. Waste arisings over the same period in offices and laboratories covered by Interserve are down 43.6% (32% across all of Defra), and water consumption has been reduced by 6.3%. Water use across Defra as a whole increased slightly (by 1%) in 2013/14 due to a water leak at Kew Gardens in 2013, but is down 15% overall when figures from this incident are removed.

Unique challenges

Vowles says that the nature of the Defra estate presents unique challenges. She explains that energy consumption and waste from the large laboratory sites, such as Weybridge, can vary enormously, depending on the type of research being undertaken. It can also be difficult to access some areas and implement energy conservation initiatives, for example, energy “shutdowns” during holiday periods such as Christmas, as research tends to be ongoing and to last for several months. “This can present a difficulty when deciding which projects to take forward,” says Vowles.

An example of the operational demands that can make it difficult to install new equipment is the rainwater harvesting system at the Weybridge laboratory. Livestock drinking water and washing facilities account for 75% of the site’s annual water consumption. Prior to the rainwater harvesting system being installed, this water was drawn from the mains supply. Domestic regulations require animals to have access to clean water, while EU regulations require the water to be suitable for human consumption. Water from the proposed rainwater harvesting system, which Vowles describes as a relatively simple solution to cutting the amount taken from the mains supply, therefore had to meet this criteria. Interserve piloted the rainwater system, using a filtration unit to ensure that the supply met the quality standard.

“We had to prove that the system could provide water that was beyond drinking water quality,” says Vowles. She reports that in the first five months that the system was in operation across the site, just 5m3 of mains water was used to top it up.

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