Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change – Report Summary

This is a UK Parliament Joint Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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The UK’s CRITICAL national infrastructure (CNI)—true to its name—is fundamental to the smooth-running of the economy and of society. It is also very vulnerable to extreme weather and other effects of climate change, such as sea level rises. Major power outages, landslides onto roads, buckling train lines and flooding of infrastructure sites: these are all realistic scenarios, and can lead to ‘cascading’ risks affecting other CNI sectors. Different infrastructure sectors are highly interdependent, so the shutdown of one CNI operator may cause knock-on effects on multiple other sectors.

This was illustrated starkly by Storm Arwen last November, when major power outages left some people without access to their digital land lines, and no way of contacting emergency services. Separately, a recent problem with railway drainage almost caused the National Blood Bank to flood. These examples show that poor adaptation to climate change is a major threat to the UK’s national security and prosperity.

As in our previous reports in this Parliament, we have unfortunately uncovered an extreme weakness at the centre of Government on a critical risk to the UK’s national security. Instead of making the resilience of CNI a priority, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office—self-described as the Minister for CNI resilience—simply refused to give oral evidence to us on this topic, despite having submitted two pieces of written evidence. This acknowledgment of his lack of command of this issue—the reason given for his refusal—was in itself shocking, and suggests 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. This may be why the Government has accepted the Climate Change Committee’s finding that it is moving backwards on adaptation, and has failed to implement any of that Committee’s latest adaptation recommendations in full. It is hard to imagine the Government taking such a lax approach to any other recognised national security risk.

The Government seems to have accepted that the next National Adaptation Programme (NAP) needs to be much more ambitious, and we implore Ministers to get a proper grip on this issue. Clear Ministerial responsibility for CNI resilience, as such, should be identified; regular meetings with the Defra Minister for Climate Adaptation should also occur, to ensure that the NAP drives forward a strong programme of activity to enhance CNI resilience to climate change.

The National Resilience Strategy has been delayed repeatedly and has still not been published, despite being a key commitment of the Integrated Review, over 18 months ago. The new Prime Minister must waste no time in laying out the Government’s plans to make the UK much more resilient to the shocks that are becoming a reality of the uncertain times in which we live. To support this work, she should also re-establish a dedicated Ministerial committee on resilience.

Despite the major risks that we outline, there are no formal mechanisms for collaboration or information-sharing between CNI sectors, and regulation is happening in siloes. We therefore call on the Government to use a range of mechanisms to improve collaboration on interdependencies and to improve its oversight of adaptation and resilience, including establishing a statutory forum for CNI regulators on climate adaptation, establishing clear resilience standards for CNI operators, and setting up a programme of stress testing CNI against extreme weather and other effects of climate change. The Government should also ensure that all operators have access to high quality weather, climate and impact forecasting and modelling, via the Cabinet Office’s Situation Centre.

Local resilience forums (LRFs) are essential to the local response to extreme weather events, so we welcome the Government’s recognition that they have been underfunded. The Government’s ongoing LRF reform programme should consider specifically their role in overseeing local CNI vulnerabilities to extreme weather and other effects of climate change, including the likely impact locally of extreme weather events. The Government should also establish a much clearer statutory remit for LRFs, and set up a programme of ‘exercises’ to plan for major regional extreme weather events with multiple cascading effects.

Investment in adaptation can save money later on, so it is vital that the Government’s planned acceleration of infrastructure investment does not result in lower standards of adaptation. We also recommend that the Government undertakes a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of climate adaptation for every CNI sector, and engages with insurance providers to explore options for a public-private insurance partnership, to incentivise investment in climate adaptation measures.

These actions must be taken urgently. The costs of failure are extremely high, as demonstrated by the tragic rail accident near Stonehaven in 2020, caused by debris on the track after heavy rainfall. This summer’s heatwave also showed that even unimaginable scenarios can fast become a reality, and the Government must prepare for the worst.