Voices: If we want to cope with heatwaves, we need to look to Europe

·5-min read

“Cowards!” Yes, you! The whole lily-livered lot of you. ”Cowards and snowflakes”.

Thus spoke former energy minister John Hayes, dismissing Britain today as “a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat”.

For crass ignorance, Hayes joins British Generals who allegedly chided their troops, during the American War of Independence, for taking cover behind rocks and trees: stand out in the open, they insisted, and be shot “like real men”. Since most historians now reckon this tale is mostly myth, Hayes’ views may also represent a historic first: a one-time Tory minister advocating a cull of his electoral base.

Because what we do know is that excess heat can be fatal. Each year the UK records several hundred excess deaths from heat. Most vulnerable, according to the NHS are those over 75; also, those who live on their own or in a care home. But let’s not be complacent. Other groups, including the young – especially babies – and the bedbound are equally vulnerable.

Yet it remains a badge of honour in some parts of the media and the populace at large to laugh in the face of sun, sea and skin damage. All those “mad dogs and Englishmen […] out in the mid-day sun”, as quintessential English gentlefellow, Noel Coward, so eloquently put it.

Some years back I returned from Italy, following a visit with my future in-laws. After two weeks, neither I nor my partner-to-be were especially sunburnt. Why would we be? We’d lived in an Italian household, lived the local lifestyle. Rise early. Rest indoors for the afternoon. Then out at 6pm for our evening camminata: our stroll around town.

In the airport, though, we, pale and rested, stood out like a not-sore thumb amidst a rabble of sweaty red faces and gammon complexions. The horror!

If foreign countries, from Spain to Australia, cope better than the UK by adapting their lifestyles to their climate, why can’t we? While some engineers are broadly optimistic, the news from government is not good. It will take decades, declared Grant Shapps on Sky News this morning, to bring the UK infrastructure up to scratch.

Our homes and our urban landscape are also lagging behind. External shutters would be a good idea. Yet, according to Doctor Zoe de Grussa, who works for the British Blind and Shutter Association (BBSA), and cited by the UK parliamentary committee on climate change on over-heating in homes, we have some way to go yet.

The windows on British homes, unlike those in much of the rest of Europe open outwards. So external shutters and blinds are difficult to add, or retrofit.

Worse, she tells me, there is confusion and some less than helpful hankering after a bygone age. An early output from the Grenfell Inquiry included recommendations that made the fitting of external shading on buildings with a residential element over 18m from the ground virtually impossible. The problem? No one who understood the issues had been consulted, despite an absence of evidence that external shading products contributed to fire spread globally.

That has now been amended: ground floor level awnings and the mechanisms that help external shading products move are now exempted, in part due to evidence provided by the BBSA.

Still, she says: “Some councils oppose external shutters and blinds because they are not ‘aesthetically pleasing’ – as occurred with a property in Camden, London. I have recently dealt with a council in Somerset that refused to allow the installation of external venetian blinds under permitted development rights on a property, despite the fact that those living inside were vulnerable and elderly.

“Yet, it was acceptable to install air-conditioning […] which seems ludicrous considering this would increase energy bills for the occupants”

New building regulations, published in December 2021, have introduced an over-heating requirement on new build homes. This aims to limit “solar gain” and improve ventilation. So, we may yet see the installation of more and better external shading products.

In my own town, the Letchworth Heritage Foundation, which greatly influences the development of local properties, tells me they don’t “actively encourage retrofitting external shutters on windows”. Though perhaps, the new building regulations may encourage them to think again on that. However, they are fans of shop awnings, which is good to hear. And trees: the clue is in the name “Letchworth Garden City”. Because another feature of Italian living is shady space built into town centres. Tree-lined walks. Cool colonnades. And shop fronts that protect from the sun.

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You can argue the merits of individual measures: awnings, shutters, brises soleil. In the end, there is room for all. As the foundation, again, explains: “[We] do promote and encourage businesses in the town to use awnings outside of their buildings. Fabric awnings, as well as being great ways to promote business and improve the look of a shop unit, offer cooling in weather such as this and a covered area during inclement times.”

OK. They recently took down some old awnings that provided much-needed shade. But these were at the end of their useful life. For now, budget constraints mean they have not been replaced. Though a few more days like today and priorities may shift.

Sad news for John Hayes. It looks like the cowards are well and truly in the ascendant. Safety measures are already happening. Though with a bit of joined up government, less English exceptionalism, they might just happen sooner and be targeted in the areas where they are most needed.

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