Government advisers and leading infrastructure experts have said ministers must do much more to protect the UK’s infrastructure from extreme weather, as the fiercest heatwave in decades gave way to thunderstorms and deluges over large parts of the country.
Storm warnings are in place over the weekend for most of England, Wales and large parts of Scotland. The Met Office said the current weather was likely to stay in place at least until next Tuesday, bringing heat, lightning and downpours to many regions of the UK, though some of the far north was likely to avoid the worst of it.
Across Europe, countries have had localised heat records beaten and a long stretch of hot weather has given way to storms in many places, with France and Belgium beset by thunderstorms after more than a week of sweltering heat. Parts of the Arctic have experienced the highest temperatures ever recorded this summer, and fires have raged again in some areas of the far north.
German farmers have complained of a plague of mice eating their harvests, in hot and dry conditions. Southern Europe has had more typical weather. Last summer was the hottest on record for many European countries, and this year’s heat is likely to come close.
Heatwaves are growing more likely in the UK, with 2020 on course to be the hottest year on record. Engineers and infrastructure experts are growing increasingly concerned that vital infrastructure – from homes and buildings to transport, water and energy networks – is unable to cope with the added strain. Several pointed to last week’s Stonehaven derailment, in which three people were killed and many more injured.
The derailment may have been caused by a landslip after heavy rain, as experts cited it as an example of the kind of incident that may grow more frequent unless urgent action is taken to make the UK more resilient to the impacts of the climate crisis.
The government’s statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, called for new regulations to protect people from rising temperatures. “The recent heatwave shows how ill-suited the current UK building stock is to hot weather, and the risk that overheating poses to us all,” said Kathryn Brown, head of adaptation at the committee. “Yet there is still no legal requirement to ensure homes, hospitals, schools or care homes are designed for the current or future climate. This urgently needs to change and be part of a wider programme of retrofitting and designing buildings within a green economic recovery package.”
The National Infrastructure Commission, whose recommendations the government has postponed replying to until the autumn, also raised concerns. “We absolutely can’t afford to stick our head in the sand,” said Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC. “The impact of extreme weather cycles can be catastrophic, particularly on structures built over a century ago for a very different age. Given the scientific consensus on the future likelihood of such events, nobody can pretend these are unknown unknowns.”
He cited the NIC’s recent report on UK infrastructure, which called on the government to publish resilience standards every five years, and for stress tests for utilities and other infrastructure such as transport.
Geoff French, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, pointed to the Stonehaven derailment as an example of what can happen when deluges strike. “Cuttings, slopes and so on need to be checked more frequently,” he said. “The challenge is to identify the most critical infrastructure and deal with that. You need to reduce the knock-on impact, when one piece of infrastructure fails.”
Much of the UK’s infrastructure dates from the Victorian age, when the climate was less prone to such high temperatures and the risk of flash flooding. Roger Kemp, professorial fellow at Lancaster University and fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said building new houses, streets and transport networks to those old specifications and templates no longer made sense. “If you look at other countries, their drains are deep and wide but we are still building as the Victorians did.”
Since the privatisation of utilities in the 1980s and 1990s, the emphasis has been on keeping down costs to billpayers, rather than investing in better infrastructure. “That was a mistake,” said Kemp. “The cultural shift has not happened: people haven’t woken up to the need to invest yet.”
Centralised government was another problem, he added. “This stuff is not very sexy, and governments like big prestige projects. There is a place for unspectacular improvements to be carried out by local authorities.”
Adapting the UK’s buildings, transport and energy and water networks, and protecting against future flooding and storms, would create much-needed jobs and could form a leading part of an economic stimulus to revive the economy battered by the coronavirus crisis, according to Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.
While the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced GBP2bn for refurbishing homes to be more energy efficient, the question of protecting them against excessive heat was not mentioned. The wrong type of insulation can reduce ventilation and turn homes into heat traps in summer.
Brown said: “Deep retrofits are needed to improve shading and ventilation for buildings alongside improving carbon and water efficiency. This will improve the comfort of our homes, create jobs and reduce household bills.”
A government spokesperson said: “Bolstering our resilience to climate change is a national priority but we know there’s more to do to protect vital infrastructure in the short term. We’re already working to protect the nation from extreme weather by doubling our investment in flood defences to better protect and prepare properties and vital infrastructure, and ensuring energy, communications and transport networks are more resilient.”
Britain is likely to experience further extremes of weather in future as climate breakdown takes a stronger hold, the Met Office said. “Winters will be wetter and warmer, and summers hotter,” said Aidan McGivern, meteorologist at the Met Office. Convective storms, such as those being seen across the country at present, will become more frequent. “The season of thunderstorms will lengthen, to begin in late spring and go on into early autumn.”
Even when we can predict rising temperatures and higher rainfall, one certainty about the future weather is that it will still take us by surprise – just as last week’s heatwave prompted outrage and shock on social media, despite 2020 following a decade of exceptional heat.
Mark McCarthy, head of the National Climate Information Centre at the Met Office, has studied centuries of the UK’s weather records, and found an enduring pattern. “We are always being taken by surprise by our weather, and what it can throw at us” he said. “That just doesn’t seem to change.”