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Government ‘underprepared for extreme weather impact on people and businesses’

The Government is underprepared for the impact of extreme weather events on people, businesses and communities, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

In a report published on Wednesday, the public spending watchdog outlined its findings on how well-prepared the country is for the likely increase in frequency and intensity of droughts, surface water flooding, storms and high temperatures.

It comes as analysis for the Climate Change Committee suggested that at least eight climate change risks may each have a cost of more than £1 billion a year by 2050, assuming a 2C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Autumn weather November 4th 2023
The report looked at how well-prepared the country is for the likely increase in flooding, droughts, storms and high temperatures (Peter Morrison/PA)

The NAO said the Government has dedicated response arrangements in place for extreme weather events when they occur.

These include established escalation protocols, close working with forecasters and government agencies, and regular reviews and testing of plans.

The Government has also taken some action to mitigate the risks posed by extreme weather events, including establishing the third national adaptation programme, which sets out action the government is taking to adapt to climate change, it added.

However, the report warned that ministers need to step up preparation to limit the impact on people, businesses, and communities.

The NAO recommended departments with responsibility for managing risks should set out clearly defined targets for “what good looks like”.

It said this will allow stakeholders across the public and private sectors to work towards a clear common goal.

The report noted that the Cabinet Office currently does not have clearly defined targets, or an effective strategy in place to make the UK resilient to extreme weather.

This makes it difficult for the Government to make informed decisions on investment and the NAO found limited evidence of risk assessments feeding into how funding was allocated, it added.

Autumn weather October 29th 2023
The NAO found that while the Government has dedicated response arrangements in place, there is more to be done to limit the impact on people, businesses and communities (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The watchdog suggested the Government accelerate plans to develop a co-ordinated approach to investment in resilience, recommending that it develop its approach by 2025 and implement it by 2028, instead of the current 2030 target.

The report said the Government does not track or evaluate its spending on extreme weather, warning that until these plans are developed, it cannot demonstrate whether value for money is being achieved.

The NAO welcomed efforts to build awareness of potential extreme weather impacts, including the Met Office recently providing short, medium and long-range weather forecasts and issuing weather warnings.

But it overall found that ministers have more to do, like ensuring more public awareness of the risks of surface water flooding since 3.4 million properties are at risk.

The watchdog also recommended the Cabinet Office strengthen the leadership, accountability and assurance arrangements of extreme weather risks across the government, including considering the merits of a Chief Risk Adviser.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The UK’s experience during the pandemic demonstrated the vital importance of building resilience, and that lesson also applies to extreme weather events.

“Government needs to place sufficient emphasis on prevention and preparedness – clearly articulating the level of risk it will tolerate – and making informed decisions about prioritisation to ensure efficient and effective investment for the long-term.”

Councillor Darren Rodwell, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Authority, said: “Councils want to play their full role in preparing people and places for the impacts of climate change on local areas.

Autumn weather September 10th 2023
Extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts, storms and flooding, are becoming more frequent (Victoria Jones/PA)

“As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, the public sense of unpreparedness will undoubtedly harden and grow.

“Councils are doing fantastic work to tackle climate change and we want our communities to feel secure in their homes and local areas.

“The public trust us most because we are rooted in communities and understand places, we must be given the tools and funding needed to make that happen.”

Responding to the report, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: “Every extreme weather event is made more likely and more dangerous by ministers allowing new fossil-fuel drilling to pump out yet more pollution.

“The best way to adapt to the climate emergency is to help prevent it – and that means rapidly phasing out fossil fuels.

“The next best way is to prepare people, homes and infrastructure for the extreme weather events still to come. It’s time for ministers to snap out of this stupor and take action.”

Pat McFadden MP, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “It is unsurprising to learn that the Government is underprepared to deal with extreme weather and flooding events.

“Only last month thousands of families had to evacuate their homes and properties as a result of Storm Babet, yet the 3.4 million households at risk of surface water flooding are under-informed and under-prepared.

“Labour would make resilience a government priority, ensuring key threats like extreme weather and hostile state interference are at the top of the agenda.”

Georgia Whitaker, Greenpeace UK’s climate campaigner, said: “The climate crisis is happening right now and this damning report makes it very clear that the Government is unprepared to deal with its impacts.

“To make matters even worse, Rishi Sunak’s climate rollbacks and new oil and gas licences, which undermines international leadership, will aggravate the climate crisis and condemn communities to more frequent and severe extreme weather events in future.

“Either Sunak and his Government steps up and starts taking the climate crisis seriously or voters will put someone in charge that will.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “The best way to protect people, businesses and communities from extreme weather events is by having systems in place that are both robust and flexible.

“This is core to the UK’s resilience strategy, which has been proven to allow us to effectively coordinate the Government and wider resilience community’s response to a diverse set of risks – having successfully dealt with a series of severe weather events this autumn.

“As the Deputy Prime Minister set out this week, we are making excellent progress on building flexible and agile capabilities, systems and strategies which ensure the UK is prepared for emerging threats.

“This includes constantly improving our systems, for example vastly increasing the number of datasets being fed into the National Situation Centre, and launching a new 24/7 Emergency Alerts system in April, which is able to deliver warnings and information to the public.”