Sefton Council explains how it has embraced water as part of its commitment to tackling climate change in an interview with Cllr Paulette Lappin, Cabinet Member - Regulatory, Compliance and Corporate Services, and Jon Williams, Environmental Management (Utilities) Officer.
What is Sefton Council doing about Climate Change?
Councillor Lappin: In July 2019 Sefton Council declared a Climate Emergency. Within this, it was agreed that the Council is committed to going further than national targets and that it must reduce emissions to net zero by 2030.
This requires urgent action we both minimise our emissions and play our part in helping our community do likewise, as well as dealing with some of the inevitable impacts such as increased flooding, heatwaves, droughts, more extreme weather and rising sea-levels.
In short, Sefton Council is committed to taking responsibility for its carbon emissions and playing its part in limiting global average temperature rises. Business as usual is no longer an option.
Why do you regard water so important when it comes to climate change if it’s about becoming carbon net zero by 2030?
Councillor Lappin: Supplying water and treating wastewater is a carbon intensive process, therefore it is important we reduce the amount we use to reduce our carbon footprint. Our water emissions are estimated to be 90 TCO2e, which makes up 1% of our carbon footprint.
Water is important due to all of the impacts I’ve mentioned. It is anticipated that due to climate change, our community, environment and economy will suffer increased stress in the future. Sefton is a low-lying coastal community with several miles of coastline; flooding and coastal erosion is already an issue we contend with. When it gets hotter, this can place a strain particularly on our most vulnerable residents as well as increase demands on water supply adding to the security of water as a resource.
Why did you consider engaging with the water market?
Jon Williams: As Councillor Lappin says, we are working hard to adapt to climate change across our borough. With 25 miles of coastline and being in close proximity to the Lake District, flooding, rather than water scarcity, is a primary concern. Addressing this is paramount because flooding places a considerable burden on our natural environment and on our budgets.
Our elected members have shown ambitious leadership on climate with our Climate Emergency Declaration. Part of my role is to turn this declaration into action. Water is often rather invisible as an environmental risk factor but addressing our water consumption under the same banner as carbon and waste through this Declaration helps everyone here to understand its strategic importance and helps us take an active, educational, leadership position on water.
Our Energy & Environmental Management Team manages a diverse estate including council buildings, schools and sport and leisure facilities. This amounts to over 400 water supply points across which I was becoming increasingly and acutely aware of water wastage and rising costs. Surface water drainage charges are exceptionally high in our area and the larger the site, the higher the charges regardless of actual volumes.
I was impeded in my attempts to quantify and address these issues, however, due to a lack of accurate information and support from our incumbent water retailer, this placed a strain on our team internally, so I began to analyse my options in the wider water market.
What options did you have and how did you choose the optimum route?
Jon Williams: Across the public sector, we have strict procurement rules which require us to analyse and test market options thoroughly. We had four potential routes: do nothing; tender for and contract another water retailer; look towards the public sector procurement framework (which is often the preferred route); or Self-Supply, a route that I knew neighbouring Blackpool Council was going down.
I ran a lot of figures and came to the firm conclusion that, unlike gas and electricity markets, the water market was too immature for me to be sure of value for money and the level of support we required through either tendering or framework routes. Doing nothing wasn’t an option either because we are dealing with taxpayers’ money and are accountable for controlling liabilities.
Self-Supply appealed to me because it was quite simply the most financially responsible thing to do. Even before working on efficiency gains, I knew I could save a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money simply by not paying retailer margins as a self-supplier; an immediate financial saving that I could not make in any other way. Having previously not felt listened to as a water customer, joining my colleagues in Blackpool to give the public sector a greater voice in the market also appealed. Self-Supply became a really clear choice for me.
We were awarded our Water Self-Supply Licence in July 2020 and bulk switched our supply points in November the same year.
How has Self-Supply delivered against your expectations?
Jon Williams: We’re doing what needed to be done. Waterscan speaks the right language based on its decades of experience in the sector and the team there covers all of the important regulatory requirements and market interactions on our behalf. I was delighted to see that Sefton Council topped the most recent MOSL peer performance tables with a near perfect 99.6% market performance score!
Through the Self-Supply Users Forum, we’re getting public sector water needs and perspectives on the agenda. I have market regulator Ofwat and operator MOSL actually coming to me to ask questions which means they are listening to customers. We didn’t have that before.
We have quarterly meter reads as a minimum standard now, above the statutory requirement. Accurate meter readings are giving us visibility of sites that might need focused attention to address.
This unprecedented level of accurate data has also highlighted prior billing errors which we are now able to resolve. To give you one example, we have uncovered a faulty AMR resulting in one of our schools receiving estimated, unverified bills for over six years.
Unfortunately, this has led to significant liabilities – money equivalent to providing a teaching assistant or special needs teaching support. While this wasn’t welcome news, the situation would only have worsened without having access to accurate information and we now have the visibility and knowledge to take prompt action over the summer school holidays and importantly, I can be confident that this situation will not arise again.
Has Self-Supply helped Sefton Council achieve its Climate Emergency goals?
Councillor Lappin: Going Self-Supply presents Sefton Council with an opportunity to manage water more effectively.
Firstly, and to understand this better, the initial challenge was to properly baseline our footprint, both in terms of the demands we make on water supply as well as the drainage network. The more demand on these resources we have, the higher our water bills are so there is an added advantage of moving toward a better understanding on a cost basis too.
Self-Supply also allows us to work more closely with our water wholesaler and a lot of work is being done to ensure we minimise these demands such as identifying leaks, high water consumption right through to how our facilities drain rainwater and place less of a burden on already stretched drainage networks.
We can’t say we reduce our water to ‘net-zero’, but we can strive toward introducing realistic targets with measures such as recycling rainwater for irrigation at some of our parks and other facilities and we can also improve the visibility of the water cycle through the work we do with our schools and our Ecocentre in Southport.
What are your next set of priorities and how will these be achieved?
Jon Williams: It’s early days in terms of data gathering but I look forward to reviewing savings opportunities based on our newfound visibility of water across our estate. I would also like to work with this data to build targets around water efficiency into our Climate Emergency Declaration action plan to ensure that water cannot be invisible or segregated from other environmental issues.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give other public sector organisations with regard to water?
Jon Williams: Several water retailers have not cottoned on to the fact that we, as water customers, need a customer-driven market and they aren’t listening to what we want.
In my experience, you mustn’t assume that your bills are accurate, they often need challenging. That’s why, if you’ve never scrutinised your water bills before, do so, because you will reap the benefits of acting and not just in financial terms. The positive impacts of this work will be seen strategically, socially in protecting the people and businesses in our society, and in the natural environment.
Across the public sector, we have a process-oriented habit, but I would urge involvement rather than following the script as we adapt to managing climate risk.
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