Published On: December 21, 2023

The National Audit Office has published its report, “Government Resilience: Extreme Weather,” to evaluate the UK’s preparedness for increasing extreme weather events, emphasising droughts, surface water flooding, storms, and high temperatures. Reflecting on the report, Sian Jones, Director of Cross-Government Value For Money at the National Audit Office, has written this article for NPC to highlight that, despite government efforts to enhance resilience, the need for a clearer vision, targets, and standards for national, local, and sectoral resilience remains. While advancements in data and forecasting exist, gaps in understanding interconnections between risks persist. The report recommends strengthening leadership, developing resilience standards, and coordinating prioritised climate investment. As extreme weather events become more frequent, the call to action underscores the urgency for strategic planning and collaborative efforts to protect the nation against the impacts of climate change.

Extreme weather events can have devastating consequences for individuals, communities and businesses. Given the dynamic nature of these risks over the medium- and long-term, even where government makes improvements, they may not be keeping pace with changes in climate risk.

The National Audit Office’s report Government resilience: extreme weather assesses four extreme weather risks: droughts, surface water flooding, storms, and high temperatures (including heatwaves), to determine how well-prepared the country is for the projected increasing frequency and intensity of such events. For instance, by 2050 there is expected to be a 50% chance each year that summer temperatures will match those of 2018 (the joint-hottest on record).  The report finds that while government continues to strengthen the arrangements in place to manage these risks, the challenge is how it places sufficient emphasis on prevention and preparedness, and makes informed decisions about prioritisation to ensure efficient and effective investment in the long-term.

In 2021, the Cabinet Office established the National Situation Centre to bring data, analysis and insight together to improve its ability to identify, monitor and manage risks. The Cabinet Office also established: a resilience directorate, which leads the government’s efforts to strengthen the UK’s resilience along with a new board with cross-government representation; the COBR Unit, which leads horizon-scanning for and response to acute emergencies, and drives professionalisation of emergency management in government; a resilience sub-committee of the National Security Council; and the UK Resilience Forum, which brings together representatives of the public, private and third sectors to improve communication and collaboration on risk, emergency preparedness, crisis response and recovery.

However, government has yet to set out how resilient it would like the UK to be. The UK Resilience Framework does not set out a well-defined vision for what a resilient UK looks like, including targets and standards for the desired level of national, local or sectoral resilience. For three of the four extreme weather risks the report examines (all except drought), government has not specified what outcome it is looking to achieve, such as target levels of preparedness or resilience, or the amount of risk that it is willing to accept in the pursuit of those outcomes (risk appetite). Without these, government cannot make informed decisions about trade-offs between long- and short-term priorities, investment or funding allocation of priority areas. It also makes it difficult for government or other stakeholders to track progress and evaluate how effectively and efficiently government is using public funds to improve national resilience.  Instead, government focuses on common consequences of risks and the ability to respond via generic capabilities, as well as planning for specific risks where this will make the most difference.

Government has good forecasting data for droughts, heatwaves and storms, but less so for surface water flooding.  Weather forecast data, climate change modelling data and risk assessment data are available and shared widely to inform decision-making and risk management. Government continues to develop its understanding of extreme weather impacts from previous events but lacks information on less common events.  For example, some of the effects of longer periods of high temperatures on different sectors and infrastructure were unknown until the record-breaking temperatures experienced in July 2022. To share insights across government and wider partners, the Cabinet Office now produces a regular UK Resilience Lessons Digest, which summarises lessons from a range of sources. The first issue in October 2022 shared lessons from Storm Arwen in 2021.

However, government does not yet have a good understanding of the interaction between different risks, the further impacts that this can have, and how risks in one system can have knock-on effects in another system. For example, the July 2022 heatwave resulted in failures at two data centres used to host the IT systems of a London hospital. This caused widespread disruption to patient care and clinical services, including to hospitals in the area to which patients were diverted. Mapping and understanding these interconnections can help to manage these risks as a system, which is only as strong as its weakest link. The Cabinet Office is working with departments to map critical national infrastructure assets and the interdependencies between them, to inform risk mitigation and planning. Government has dedicated response arrangements in place for extreme weather events. These provide it with the means to monitor events and the response to them, and consider where central government support and actions may assist. However, the report found limited evidence that government tests and assures contingency plans. In addition, government does not know how much the public sector is spending to manage extreme weather risks because action is taken across a wide range of organisations.

The report recommends that:

  • The Cabinet Office, working with other departments, should strengthen leadership, accountability and assurance arrangements for the management of extreme weather risks.
  • The Cabinet Office should review the current risk and resilience structures, and identify any gaps in its system-wide oversight of national risks, and consider the merits of a Chief Risk Adviser.
  • The Cabinet Office should set out what a resilient UK looks like, a strategy to deliver this, and the specific roles of government, the private and voluntary sectors and the public.
  • Lead government departments, working with the Cabinet Office, should develop a set of resilience standards for infrastructure and give regulators consistent climate resilience roles.
  • The Cabinet Office, working with HM Treasury and other departments, should develop a coordinated, prioritised approach to investment in climate and wider resilience by 2025, and implement it by 2028.
  • Lead government departments, working with HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office, should encourage greater investment in climate adaptation from the private sector.

Recent events have shown that government must do more to help prepare for and develop resilience to extreme weather. Government needs to increase its focus on reducing these risks and making the system more resilient to the worsening impacts of extreme weather.

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