Commissioner rejects case against releasing energy data
Tens of thousands of buildings across the UK which are visited by the public have to display energy efficiency certificates. The idea is to allow visitors to see the site's energy performance and provide an incentive for improvement.
But what if you want to compare the energy efficiency ratings of many different buildings to get an overall national analysis? It's far from easy to get the figures needed to do that.
The BBC has been trying to obtain a collection of the raw data used to compile these certificates. This week a ruling from the Information Commissioner has removed one obstacle to this, although the final outcome is still uncertain.
Our attempts to get this dataset fully released go back several years. In 2009 the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) disclosed the relevant figures for the large public buildings then on the Non-Domestic Energy Performance (EPC) Register in England and Wales.
This followed a request I made under the Environmental Information Regulations and a process lasting several months that involved a change to the regulations governing the register.
It revealed that the least energy-efficient public buildings in England and Wales then included a leisure centre in Birmingham, Defra's Central Veterinary Laboratory, and a coal mining museum in Yorkshire
In March 2013 the BBC made another request for the energy efficiency measurements for the public and commercial buildings listed on the non-domestic register. This was partly because the previous dataset had become out of date and also because more buildings have since been added to the register.
DCLG refused to release the up to date and more extensive dataset. It argued that the information is already easily accessible, since it is possible to enter individual postcodes or a reference number for each building on the register website and thus go through a "straightforward" procedure of obtaining all the data, building by building.
The BBC complained to the Information Commissioner. We estimated that given the way the website works it would take someone at least 26 months to obtain all the data through this method.
The Commissioner ruled that information which could only be obtained in this way could not be considered as "easily accessible". His judgment described this proposed procedure as an "onerous process".
He has told DCLG that it cannot use this argument as the basis for refusing to release the data freely and publicly. It is not clear whether the department will now release the material or will continue to resist doing so, but for a different reason.
DCLG says it cannot comment as it has not yet received the decision notice from the Information Commissioner's Office, although normally they are sent to both the requester and the public authority at the same time.
Andrew Warren of the Association for the Conservation of Energy believes that publishing the information would be in the public interest. He says: "The data should be publicly and freely available. The European directive which the UK government has signed up to says the data should be made public".
The Information Commissioner's ruling relates to the register for England and Wales. The BBC has made similar requests for comparable information about the energy ratings of non-domestic buildings in Scotland and Northern Ireland. (The BBC has not sought data about domestic buildings).
The Northern Ireland Executive also rejected the information request, and the BBC has appealed against this to the Information Commissioner who is still considering that case.
The Scottish Government responded to the BBC's request by stating that it would be publishing the information and this would start in 2013. In fact this is yet to happen. A spokesperson now says that publication has been delayed "primarily due to development of the Scottish EPC register still being ongoing in support of a number of policy initiatives."
The Scottish Government maintains that it still intends to publish its data, but this is now unlikely to happen before summer 2014.
UPDATE 14:15, 16 JANUARY
A DCLG spokesperson has now come back to me with a comment: "Energy performance data is currently accessible for a charge, which reduces the cost for the general taxpayer. The Government has already announced that, as part of our open data strategy, it intends to open access to this. As with any Information Commission ruling, we will carefully consider the decision and respond in due course."