Friday, 1 September 2006

Is the water quango meeting our needs?

Published: 01 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

SHOULD North of Scotland customers of Scottish Water agree with the Scottish government that the public utility is delivering for our needs? That’s what Highland MSPs have been asking for years, and were able to ask Scottish Water’s top brass in a cross-party meeting held in Inverness on Wednesday.

I have to recall the SNP-led debate last March on the work of the troubled quango after its chairman, Alan Alexander, fell on his sword following months of wrangling about the budget for the next four years’ programme that was halted by the minister in a calculated political face-saving move that ordered the appointment of a new chairman days before Mr Alexander was sacked. Alas, the little matter of a loose beam in the Parliamentary Chamber distracted attention from the vote which was delayed as a result of our urgent decant into temporary quarters.

Labour and Lib Dems agreed that Ross Finnie had displayed “good stewardship” of the quango and won by 65 votes to 47, with six abstentions. In May 2007 voters can decide whether they agree with the words of that winning amendment – “these actions by the Executive represent good stewardship of Scottish Water in the public and customer interest”.

But the question has added point this month as the Highland Council flagged up the fact that 1600 homes with planning permission cannot proceed due to lack of water investment. This is down to Scottish Water being only recently geared up to meeting the extra costs of small developments in remoter areas.

An answer to another Parliamentary Question sheds further doubt on the likelihood of a speedy solution. My colleague Stewart Stevenson, SNP MSP for Banff and Buchan, asked the Communities Minister how many new houses have been built in each constituency since 1999. In Highland the completion figures have steadily dropped from 1366 in 1999 to 847 in 2005. The Western Isles have doubled, as has Moray; Orkney has trebled and Shetland dropped to two-thirds. Most of these are much smaller councils but the problem of 1600 awaiting water schemes could take years to sort out.

It is all the more perplexing that government whips ordered rejection of the SNP motion in Parliament last March as it expressed concern over the impact of delays in investment in water and sewerage infrastructure on economic, environmental and social development in Scotland.

Dark rumours have surfaced that it is much easier for the government and Scottish Water to gain credit for large schemes completed in central Scotland rather than scattered small ones in the North, which take far greater time and costs to deliver. For example, costs for the Milngavie water treatment works sounds enormous; the Katrine Water Project is the largest single water treatment scheme in Scottish Water’s current £2.15 billion investment programme and is intended to provide Greater Glasgow with a state-of-the-art water supply. Estimated project costs stand at £120 million, with other elements having added a further £7.9 million to the original estimates. So no expenses spared to sort out Glasgow’s water issues. Can we expect the same determination to invest in our priorities up here?

I hope to get agreement across the parties for a rural priority list to fund water connections in North. Simple questions need answered. Does every house with planning permission have the same urgency? If it is to house essential workers and young or homeless people, should they not get a higher ranking? And what about new business premises? These things have to be thrashed out.

I look forward to a more sophisticated debate that delivers equitable results.

THE advantages of choosing to generate electricity from sources such as coal, gas, oil and nuclear are hard to define. Each of these sources is finite. But all fail to capture the heat produced in the power production process as practised in the UK today. That reduces their efficiency enormously and makes little or no economic or scientific sense.

Combined heat and power meets both energy efficiency and CO2 reduction targets. That’s why Sweden, Denmark and Holland, our near neighbours, have placed energy generation plants closer to the users and are now able to contemplate changing the power source from fossil and finite to infinitely renewable fuel sources. They are also replacing fossil fuels with biomass in local plants and at the national level, for example in Sweden, they aim to make their total energy economy a non-carbon one, with no nuclear element, by 2020.

This week I found out more about working Dutch technology that heats or cools huge road flyovers and airport runways and uses the heat produced to heat or cool housing blocks, industrial and commercial buildings, as required. It is being developed by a company that has been based in Ullapool for the past 10 years. Invisible Heating Systems is taking the principle of combined heat and power first of all installed in its underfloor heating systems by using the surprising capacity for tarmacadam to convert roads and driveways into giant solar panels along with a heat-exchange system that stores energy in the form of warm or cold water in the ground that can be tapped into when required.

A square metre of tarmac can absorb and deliver about half of energy of a similar-sized solar panel for under a tenth of the price. So as long as the road or bridge is near a housing scheme or swimming pool, etc., this can be applied.

It has been estimated that if a tenth of Holland’s motorways were so built they could generate as much power as the electricity companies today.

Of course it is only one of the renewable options that can be produced locally and delivered anywhere in the world. Why should we be interested? Because every time oil prices rise, more and more people are looking to invest in cash-saving and energy-saving alternatives. The trick for the North of Scotland is to get a mix of systems going to transform our comfort and energy efficiency.

If we follow ideas like those that Henc Verweijmeren and Liz Stewart and their team of 16 employees are growing in Ullapool, they could even lead to future steps to create buildings that need zero heat input. But why not get wise now to the uses of the heat source of the Earth to help solve our heat and electricity problems?