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Government too focused on short-term response to extreme weather, MPs warn

A fallen tree in floodwater in York following storms in January (Danny Lawson/PA)
A fallen tree in floodwater in York following storms in January (Danny Lawson/PA)

The Government is too focused on its short-term response, rather than long-term plans, for floods, storms and heatwaves, MPs have warned.

The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said extreme weather was on the rise with climate change and ministers must urgently act to ensure medium and long-term planning and investment in infrastructure to make it resilient to such risks.

A failure to do so could come at a high cost to individuals, the economy and society in the future, a report from the committee warned.

A man makes safe fallen masonry from a property, in Roker, Sunderland, after gusts of almost 100 miles per hour battered some areas of the UK during Storm Arwen in 2021 (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Fallen masonry from a property in Roker, Sunderland, after Storm Arwen in 2021 (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Extreme weather risks are some of the most serious threats facing the UK, the report said, making up eight of 89 risks in the national risk register.

Recent extremes include estimated insurance losses of £250-£300 million from Storm Arwen, which hit north-eastern parts of the UK in November 2021, killing three people as trees were brought down, and cutting power to a million homes.

And the record-breaking summer of 2022, when temperatures breached 40C for the first time in England, saw 4,500 heat-related deaths in the country.

The report said the Covid pandemic highlighted the need to strengthen resilience to the national risks the UK faces, and it focuses on extreme weather to flag wider lessons on the country’s preparedness for major threats.

It found central government does not check local emergency plans for events such as flooding to see if they are fit for purpose, and does not know how much money is being spent on resilience to extreme weather or other risks.

And the role and responsibilities of authorities, private and voluntary organisations and the public have not been set out, leaving people and communities uncertain or unaware of how to cope with extreme events.

When it comes to high temperatures and heatwaves, storms, and flooding, the Government has set no targets for how prepared the UK should be, or how much risk it is willing to accept – without which informed decisions cannot be made on priorities, investment or allocating funding, the report warned.

It urged the Government to ensure sufficient focus on building the UK’s medium and long-term resilience to extreme weather events and other national risks to help withstand them and minimise damage.

Recommendations on how to do this include prioritising and co-ordinating investment, encouraging greater private funding for climate protection, and setting out a strategy for what a resilient UK looks like and how to deliver it.

There should also be a government chief risk officer to identify and manage major threats, and the Government should set out clear roles and responsibilities for citizens and the public, private and voluntary sectors on preventing and preparing for national risks, the report urged.

Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the committee, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic must act as a permanent warning, carved in stone for any government.

“Events can and will take place in which our communities and systems of governance are sorely tested, and it is therefore incumbent on decision-makers to foster built-in resilience and long-term planning.

“This is nowhere more true than in the case of extreme weather.

“Unfortunately, a theme of our scrutiny across the board is that government can be overly focused on the short-term response.”

“This is not a sustainable approach to dealing with extreme weather events,” she added.

“Government must now act with urgency to ensure long-term planning and investment is in place for infrastructure which can endure through even the most challenging of times.”

Responding to the report, Darren Rodwell, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “LGA polling found that just 5% of the public feel prepared for the impacts of climate change, following recent years of excess heat, flooding and storms.

“It also found that the public trust their council the most to lead the effort to prepare villages, towns and cities for the climate impacts.

“This is because councils are rooted in communities and understand places, we must be given the tools and funding needed to make that happen.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a robust and flexible system in place, which has allowed us to effectively co-ordinate responses to a diverse set of risks – including severe weather – this winter and spring.

“As the Deputy Prime Minister set out in his annual statement on risk and resilience, the UK is prepared for emerging threats.

“We have recently made progress by establishing a dedicated team of people solely focused on our resilience, the publication of the most transparent ever National Risk Register, and launching the new 24/7 Emergency Alerts system which was successfully deployed for the first time earlier this year.

“We will now consider the recommendations set out in the report.”