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Extreme Weather: Resilience

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question in the form of a Statement:

“First, I would like to say how sorry the Government were to hear that four people sadly lost their lives due to Storm Isha, two in this country and two in Ireland. I extend my sympathy to their families and friends. At the same time, I praise our emergency and utility workers, who have worked so hard in some very difficult conditions to help the public.

Forecasters at the Met Office raised a rare whole-country weather warning for the wind over the weekend, in preparation for Storm Isha. The warning encompassed even rarer amber and red warnings for wind in the areas forecast to experience the worst of the storm. Indeed, wind gusts reached a peak of 99 mph in Northumberland and 124 mph across the Cairngorms. Although the storm had the potential to be extremely destructive, the vast majority of the transport and power infrastructure stood up well and recovered quickly, which is a credit to the resilience of our critical infra- structure and the response capabilities of our operational partners on the ground.

Storm Isha was closely followed by Storm Jocelyn, which reached a peak of 97 mph. I am informed that it was the 10th named storm to impact our country this season. Again, the impacts from Jocelyn in England were less than feared. There were operational partners working around the clock to clear any disruption on our transport and power networks.

The forecasting capabilities of our experts in the Met Office, and the accuracy and speed at which they can warn and inform the public of incoming severe weather events, no doubt saves lives and protects our homes and businesses. My officials and those across government were working hard last week, and over the weekend, to co-ordinate the extensive preparation and mitigation measures being taken across the Government. The fact that no escalation to a COBRA-level response was required for either storm is testament to our effective response structures at local and national levels. I am very grateful for the response from colleagues in the devolved Administrations and to local resilience forums around the country. Our local authority and agency partners kept public services running and reacted to any local issues that emerged.

We are adapting to weather events not previously experienced in our country, and events such as these coming with increasing frequency and severity. The UK is driving forward cross-government action to respond to climate risks and their impacts on our economy and way of life. Our third national adaptation programme, published in July last year, sets out an ambitious five-year programme of work, driven by three themes: action, information and co-ordination.

We are ensuring a more integrated approach to climate adaptation over the next five years, through stronger government engagement and co-ordinated policy-making. As part of this, we have already established the right government structures not only to monitor progress but to tackle strategic cross-cutting challenges which will drive the UK’s resilience to climate change. This is all in line with the Government’s broader strategy, as set out in the resilience framework, which committed us to strengthening the links between our understanding of the risks that the UK faces and the action we take to prevent those risks materialising. We must continue to drive forward the initiatives that help us curb the impacts of climate change and, at the same time, build systems that help us to withstand extreme events as they arise”.

My Lords, I echo the words of the Minister in saying how sorry we all were to hear of the loss of four lives as a result of Storms Isha and Jocelyn in the UK and Ireland. Our thoughts are with their families and friends. Our thanks go to the emergency and utility service workers who worked tirelessly to protect homes and lives, often in the most challenging of circumstances. The Environment Agency estimates that the number of homes at risk from flooding could double by 2050 due to the impact of climate change. The UK needs to be better prepared. Will the Minister accept that a COBRA-style flood resilience task force, as proposed on these Benches, is needed to tackle the problem?

My Lords, I very much echo what the noble Baroness said about the emergency services and all who are involved in this. Indeed, without the changes we have made and the effort they put in, these recent storms would have caused much more damage and perhaps more loss of life, so that is very good news.

The COBRA system, which the noble Baroness mentions, is of course already baked into standing cross-government flooding response mechanisms, as the last tier of escalation for the most severe flood events. These mechanisms are stood up to support the operational response at local level, which is obviously necessitated by the increasingly sophisticated weather warnings that we see coming through from the Met Office. We managed well across the country on this occasion and the COBRA unit in the Cabinet Office—the ministerial unit—was not needed. That does not mean to say that officials did not get together. They worked well across the country with local people and the devolved Administrations. In some sense, it is a success that it was unnecessary to have the full COBRA ministerial meeting on this occasion. I have referenced the future resilience work that we are doing. We have brought these much better co-ordination systems into the Cabinet Office and work very closely with Defra, which is responsible for building up long-term flood protection. We have also invested a lot of capital in recent years. There is £5.2 billion available for flood defence projects, which I think is a doubling on the previous period.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Statement. I join her and the Labour Benches in offering our condolences for all those who lost their lives, and in thanking the emergency services for everything that they do. UK winters are getting warmer and wetter; there is a lot of variation year to year, but winter rainfall has increased by 27% overall since records began in 1837. The impacts of climate change are here now. The NAO report Resilience to Flooding found that the Government do not have clearly defined targets or an effective strategy in place for making the UK resilient to extreme weather. They do not even track or evaluate spending on resilience to extreme weather. When do the Government plan to publish an extreme weather strategy, to include defined targets, risk assessments, and measures of outcomes?

I thank the noble Earl. I am glad he mentioned the NAO report, because it did welcome the work that had been done—I know this has been welcomed across the House—on setting up the Resilience Directorate and, indeed, publishing the resilience framework in 2022. Setting appropriate targets and ambitions for the level of flood resilience—in particular, for critical infrastructure because that is a key part—is part of the Government’s broader thinking on resilience standards.

There are more than 100 risk priorities in our risk register; we are working on all of these and have committed to create by 2030 common but flexible resilience standards right across critical national infrastructure, as well as across the private sector more broadly. One of the lessons of the storms we are seeing is that it is important to work with the private sector as well. One reason that people have been less affected has been the improvements that have been made in power, transport, trains and the rest—partly having early warning, partly working together, and partly having this sense of mission that we must try to respond to the warmer, wetter winters and the arrival of a certain element of Mediterranean weather in our beautiful island, as the noble Earl said.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister mentioned the private sector, because I would like to take it to an even more granular level—the individual household sector. Has she had conversations with the insurance industry, to make it absolutely clear to home policy owners what damage is covered and how to deal with neighbourhood disputes resulting from falling trees, falling fences and similar damage, where it may not be immediately obvious whose responsibility it is?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point about insurance. We do have discussions with the insurance industry on resilience. Of course, in recent years we have developed Flood Re, which is a very important reinsurance scheme that makes flood cover more widely available to households that are particularly vulnerable to flooding so that people can get insurance. Another part of the picture is the compensation schemes that are part of the flood recovery framework. In England, for appropriate events, there was £500 per affected household and £2,500 for affected businesses provided through the local authority, and some temporary council tax and business rate relief. The arrangements in the devolved nations are a bit different and, in some cases, more generous.

I think we must look at it in the round. How can the Government help? How can they prevent this? Can they communicate much better to make sure that people are not harmed and are kept safe? Where, sadly, there is damage to property, can we make sure that the insurance system helps to minimise government expenditure, which is occasionally necessary?

My Lords, the Minister said in her opening remarks that the problems in the last few days were such that we had not seen before, but is that the case? This is the ninth season that the so-called European windstorms have been sufficiently serious for them to have names attached. On each occasion, we see apparently more serious effects in the UK than in other countries—electricity supply off for days on end, trains and other forms of transport severely disrupted. It is fair to ask why that should be. Do the Minister and her Government not believe that more resources need to be given to local authorities, and indeed to rail companies and other forms of transport, to enable them to prepare more effectively? These windstorms will not go away; they will increase in severity.

My own view on resilience is that it has to be a whole-of-society effort; I was trying to explain that point in relation to the previous question. Therefore, local authorities play an important part. Clearly, this is part of local authority funding in the broadest sense, and there has been some further assistance for local authorities, although I know that difficulties remain. We have tried very hard to focus attention on the local resilience forums; DLUHC agreed an extra £22 million three-year funding settlement for them in England. That followed a pilot, and the good news—I think it has probably been announced before—is that there will be stronger local resilience forum pilots in eight areas, going live in June. They will be in London, West Mercia, Suffolk, Gloucester, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Thames Valley and Northumbria—so this is investment in the local effort in different sorts of areas. I am a great believer in piloting because you can then share that elsewhere and make things better.

On funding, obviously we need to spend enough on flood protection and resilience, but we also need to try to do it in a better way and with the help of all parts of society. I mentioned earlier the efforts that have been made—by power companies, for example—to improve things and get electricity out much more quickly. We have had a lot of storms; the weather is perhaps getting worse, but we are trying to learn from that and to perform better in these sometimes very tragic situations.

Sitting suspended.