Damning report finds “extreme weakness” at heart of government over ability of key services to cope with climate change

Government advisors have warned ministers to improve the climate resilience of key national services such as roads and railways, power and water supply, hospitals and telecommunications following the publication of a report into the dangers posed by changing weather.

National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt said the UK urgently needs a more strategic and joined up approach to resilience directed by government and overseen by regulators.

Armitt called for the rapid publication of the repeatedly delayed national resilience strategy, a document which will outline how Britain’s critical national infrastructure (CNI) can better withstand extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves.

Storm Arwen shutterstock

Last year’s Storm Arwen left many people without access to emergency services

The comments come on the same day as a report by the joint select committee on the national security strategy found there had been an “extreme weakness” at the centre of government on the issue, described as a critical risk to the UK’s national security.

The report said former cabinet secretary Michael Ellis had “simply refused” to give oral evidence to the committee because he had admitted that he lacked a “command” on the issue.

The committee described this as “shocking” and said it showed a “severe dereliction of duty on the part of the government”.

“It appears that no minister is taking responsibility for this topic, and there are no cross-cabinet committees driving forward the government’s work on adaptation and CNI resilience,” the report said.

The risks posed by climate change were illustrated recently when problems with railway drainage almost caused the National Blood Bank to flood. Storm Arwen last November also left some people without access to their digital landlines and thus no way of contacting emergency services.

The committee said these examples showed that poor adaptation to climate change is a major threat to the UK’s national security and prosperity. But it warned there were still no formal mechanisms for collaboration or information-sharing between CNI sectors, and that regulation was happening in siloes.

Armitt said: “The joint committee’s report is another reminder that getting the governance of resilience right will be crucial to the success of attempts to adapt and respond to growing stresses on our infrastructure networks.

“Parliamentarians have reached the same conclusion as us: the UK urgently needs a more strategic and joined-up approach to resilience, directed by government and overseen by regulators.

“We hope this added pressure will lead to the rapid publication of the national resilience strategy, to start the process of providing that strategic direction.”

The report references several past NIC recommendations to the government for improving infrastructure resilience, including the establishment of clear resilience standards with compulsory stress testing, and improving coordination between different regulators.

Many of these were broadly accepted by the government in September 2021 with an indication they would form part of the forthcoming strategy.

Yesterday, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres warned that countries must prioritise climate change or face catastrophe, saying that there has been a tendency to put the issue “on the back burner”.