Climate change adaptation - Environmental Audit Contents

2  Emergency response

9. Adaptation involves measures to prevent damage and disruption from extreme weather events. Because it is not practicable, even if it were affordable, to defend against all threats in all locations, adaptation also encompasses the response to such events, to minimise the disruption that inevitably will occur. As the ASC put it, emergency response is a different type of adaptation as it "extends into the 'respond and recover' rather than just the 'prepare' aspects of climate change adaptation".[18] The ASC highlighted that exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather impacts is increasing and climate change is likely to lead to increased river, coastal and surface water flooding in England. The 2013-14 winter flooding was a stark reminder of our vulnerability to such weather extremes; the response to which was assessed by the Fire Brigades Union as "the largest deployment by the fire and rescue services since [the] Second World War".[19]

10. The ASC report noted that "emergency response and recovery are needed when preventative measures alone do not provide complete protection against an extreme weather event",[20] and that "organisations involved in emergency response will need to be able to cope with the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather expected with climate change".[21] Lord Krebs told us that "we have to have an effective system to respond" to extreme weather events.[22]

Civil Contingencies Act

11. Emergency response, whether to extreme weather or other events, is shaped at the highest level by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. This created the first single statutory and regulatory framework for civil protection in the UK.[23] Daniel Johns told us that the Act has created a "very strong legal framework for emergency planning".[24] The National Security Strategy identifies high priority risks and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office produces the National Risk Assessment, to guide planning for those major risks over the following five years. The Assessment addresses major coastal or river flooding, droughts, heatwaves, cold spells, wildfire, and animal or human disease outbreaks. It also covers terrorist attack and major industrial accidents. A separate National Security Risk Assessment looks 5 to 20 years ahead.[25]

12. The Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat coordinates local resilience alongside DCLG. Individual departments and agencies have responsibility for advising and preparing for events that fall within their remit, including Defra which leads on flooding and drought. At the local level, emergency response is led by 'category 1' and 'category 2' responders. In each part of the country they work together in one of 38 Local Resilience Forums. Paul Crick from Kent County Council explained to us how the Kent Resilience Forum emergency response system brings together many organisations:

    [Kent Resilience Forum] is chaired by Kent police but the partners around the table range from district councils, police, Kent fire and rescue, other partners such as ambulance and coastguard—the usual category 1 and category 2 responders … Because partners have seen the benefit of that emergency agency working, the Environment Agency now sit within that team two to three days a week, as do public health now with the public health potential issues that could be on the horizon. Partners are beginning to join up in creating that one big team. It is very much a multi-agency approach.[26]

DCLG and the Cabinet Office are involved when an event spans more than one Local Resilience Forum boundary, or where the severity of the event causes central Government to lead the response through the 'COBRA' ministerial emergency committee.

Capabilities and resources

13. The effectiveness of plans and responses to emergencies is reviewed through the National Resilience Capabilities Programme, test exercises, and both internal and independent external reviews. Oliver Letwin, Minister for Government Policy, told us that "what we have started to learn to do is to build up capacities that enable us at the centre to reinforce local effort in advance".[27] He explained that the Cabinet Office is planning to consider how the risks from climate change might alter the way the National Risk Assessment (a 5-year forward look) and the National Security Risk Assessment (a 20 year forward look) are developed. He explained that part of the review of capabilities would involve:

    a reassessment of what it means to have a one in 100 or one in 200, or one in 1,000 or one in 10,000 risk of something occurring. If that was true for a particular thing in 1999, it is not going to necessarily be true in 2020. You have to ask yourself what changes have occurred that would change that risk assessment, and that is what we are in the process of doing.

    [A] combination of a more sophisticated, more real-time approach to forecasting likelihood, with more fine-grained understanding of which risks really matter most, should produce a graph that more accurately enables us to focus on the right things as our priorities.[28]

14. However, the National Flood Forum believed that further clarity on roles and responsibilities in emergencies was required.[29] And Daniel Johns told us that when the ASC had looked at emergency planning it found that:

    There were concerns about the level of capability to manage certain types of emergency, so while the Cabinet Office runs a national capability survey every other year, primarily it talks about processes: do you have a plan for this; do you know what to do in the event of that? It does not ask questions such as, "What assets and what capability do you have to respond to certain types of emergency?"[30]

He concluded that "there are still some shortcomings around resources, information and certain aspects of capability".[31] The ASC wanted the Government to review resourcing levels "to ensure there are sufficient trained personnel, and assets, available to respond in an emergency".[32] The Fire Brigades Union found that:

    With 6,500 fewer firefighters now than at the time of 2007 floods, the UK today is less flood-resilient than it was just a few years ago, with an over-reliance on volunteers who for understandable reasons may not always be available.[33]

Concerns were expressed that budget cuts at a local level might undermine the emergency response systems. Kristen Guida from Climate UK told us that "we have devolved a lot of responsibility down to local areas, which are haemorrhaging in terms of resource, and we are going to have to monitor this adaptation programme at some point".[34]

A flexible response

15. Alex Nickson from the Local Adaptation Advisory Panel told us that "resilience is about how we can avoid or limit the damage, respond to it effectively and then return to a more resilient place afterwards so that we are more resilient again to the next event", but also that local resilience groups were "too response-focused" because their raison d'être comes from the Cabinet Office.[35] Oliver Letwin believed, however, that overall "we have a pretty well-developed system for dealing with emergencies" which has been "tested over and over and … mostly it has worked".[36] He explained that:

    You have to have a well-orchestrated system for finding out what is happening, get the right collection of people in the right place to work out how to deal with what is happening, have the right co-ordination between those people and other people in other parts of the country to make sure that the thing is carried out efficiently, with back-up at the centre for those who find that they do not have sufficient resources locally. That is what the system of COBRA and the local resilience forums achieves.[37]

16. He told us that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat does a "really terrific job" to keep under review previous responses which it then uses "to improve on the process for the next one".[38] Similarly, Lord Krebs thought that "the emergency planning system is pretty good",[39] and the ASC praised the way lessons were learned following previous emergencies, such as the 2007 floods.[40] The ASC's progress report noted that:

    Emergency services provide a multi-purpose capacity to respond to unexpected crises. Given the uncertainties around future climate change, in particular around extreme events, a flexible response capability is a good way of building societal resilience. [41]

17. The Government's National Security Strategy addresses not just flooding and severe weather but also includes extremism, counter-terrorism and cyber security. Oliver Letwin emphasised the need for a flexible system with people "knowing what to do if".[42] There was little to be gained in terms of response from seeking to identify whether the emergency in question was a terrorism related or a natural event. He told us that "we have avoided the mistake of fashioning the response according to the cause, and instead fashioned a response according to the problem".[43] A 'Horizon Scanning Group' is looking into the future "to imagine what might happen, and might be a concern or an opportunity, and then to see how far we can prepare ourselves to deal with [it] should it materialise".[44] He told us that this work was still in its early years and that "You cannot have a perfectly developed plan for what might happen 50 years from now, but if you have not thought about it you will certainly be surprised by something you had not thought about."[45]


18. The emergency response framework for dealing with extreme weather (and other events) has been repeatedly tested and there are established structures through which the relevant central and local authorities learn lessons and integrate these into improving systems. Cuts to local authorities' and emergency services' budgets may be reducing the capacity of local emergency responders to deal with extreme weather events when required. Without waiting for the ASC's statutory report on the NAP in July 2015 or the results of the Government's 'horizon scanning' of future risks and threats, the Government should commission a review of the physical resources, capacity and skills available for emergency response as well as the coordination between all of the organisations involved, at both national and local level.

18   ASC, Managing climate risks to well-being and the economy (July 2014), p164 Back

19   Fire Brigades Union, Inundated: The lessons of recent flooding for the fire and rescue service (February, 2015) Back

20   ASC, Managing climate risks to well-being and the economy (July 2014), p163 Back

21   ibid, p163 Back

22   Q282  Back

23   Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Back

24   Q283 Back

25   ASC, Managing climate risks to well-being and the economy (July 2014), p166 Back

26   Q9 Back

27   Q326 Back

28   Q324 Back

29   National Flood Forum (CCA0009), para 7 Back

30   Q283  Back

31   Q283 Back

32   ASC, Managing climate risks to well-being and the economy, (July 2014), p185 Back

33   Fire Brigades Union, Inundated: The lessons of recent flooding for the fire and rescue service, (February, 2015), p5 Back

34   Q11 Back

35   Q18 Back

36   Q325  Back

37   Q325 Back

38   Q326 Back

39   Q282  Back

40   ASC, Managing climate risks to well-being and the economy (July 2014), p176 Back

41   Ibid, p165 Back

42   Q325 Back

43   Q328 Back

44   Q327 Back

45   Q325 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2015