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Improving Extreme Weather Preparedness and Resilience: Emergency Planning Through a 'Whole-of-Society' Approach – Part 1

Recently, I was extremely fortunate to attend the Policy Foresight webinar on Improving Extreme Weather Preparedness and Resilience: Emergency Planning Through a 'Whole-of-Society' Approach. This event was worth attending, and it provided several key insights, situational updates, and shared learning from reflections across stakeholders. It's fair to say I walked away with better situational awareness and learned a lot.

The Strategic Picture

The Head of the Emergency Planning College, Deborah Higgins, did an excellent job chairing the day's event. Setting a pragmatic and focused agenda on the need to build long-term resilience to extreme weather events in the context of a changing climate right from the beginning, in recognition that extreme weather is one of the most complex and dynamic risks we face on our national risk register.

During a keynote session, Roger Hargreaves, Director of the COBR Unit at the Cabinet Office, provided an in-depth overview of our country's progress in preparing for, and responding to extreme weather events. With over two decades of experience, he shared the challenges and different responses required for various key events, such as the 2007 floods. He also reflected on the progress made since then following the Pitt Review.

Roger emphasised that the UK has exceptional risk assessment and crisis response capabilities. However, there is still much work to be done to improve our national preparedness and response capabilities in conjunction with our climate change adaptation efforts. This requires a two-pronged approach to both acute and chronic risks, as demonstrated by the Cabinet Office's structures that support integrated emergency response (COBR) and resilience (Resilience Directorate) through the shared thread of risk management. The aim is to prepare for increasingly interconnected risks from hazards like extreme weather events. This was supported by an overview of how the national resilience framework underpins this strategic approach by recognising that a shared understanding of risk between partners is vital, along with a focus on prevention. This focus on prevention is being done by moving government effort and spending upstream to stop risk at the source. It is essential to understand that resilience is a shared endeavour of society, not just a top-down approach. Learning from COVID shows that everyone has a part to play, and amplifying this will yield more efficient and effective results.

Roger highlighted the progress made since implementing the UK government's National Resilience Framework. He praised the transparency of the new National Risk Assessment, which provides this shared understanding of risk. The UK Resilience Forum comprises various organisations that improve information sharing and collaboration. The UK Resilience Academy is being developed to provide a broader range of partners with access to the curriculum. The emergency alert system became operational last year, and the 'Stronger LRF' pilot program is gaining momentum. Additionally, there has been a UK resilience learning needs analysis, the EPC has established the Lessons Digest and a new training and exercising forum, and an emerging supply chain strategy is being developed within the government. Roger speaks highly of the new National Situation Centre, describing it as a critical capability that provides access to data and insights for emergencies. It is world-leading in capabilities, providing extreme data to aggregate information from local sources to give coherent situational awareness for enhanced real-time decision-making.

The new data insights enable a multi-hazard approach with much faster interrogation of concurrent and compounding risks, which can be done in seconds through interaction assessments. Compound and concurrent risks have become more prevalent in the past four years, alongside the intersectionality of risk. When asked how to measure this and what tools are available, Roger replied that the common consequence-based approach is not as complex as we thought. Often, it is just a doubling effect, not as sophisticated as people think. However, extreme weather is the worst amplifier currently under-priced and underinvested in, requiring broader capacity and capability building to build long-term resilience.

When asked how we get better at learning lessons in real time, Roger remarked that substantial improvements have been made over the years, driven directly by our experiences and reflections on lessons from previous extreme weather events. Much good work recently on sharing lessons has also been done, remarking on the EPC Lessons Digest, noting the fourth issue is released on the same day as this event, focusing on adaptation lessons in preparing and responding to extreme weather events in a changing climate, with an analysis of over 270 lessons on adaptation. However, there’s a need to have constructive, open, honest conversations that are non-blame. Litigation-type learning creates a defensiveness around lessons with blame and failure appointed; internationally, it's constructive and reflective. The COVID inquiry is a prime example: half a billion pounds could have been put directly into resilience capability building. This public litigatory approach is not constructive.

It is also worth noting that the Cabinet Office intends to bring out exercise guidance and lessons management guidance next month (April 2024).


Improving Prevention and Preparation for Extreme Weather Events

The first panel session of the day was with Caroline Douglass (Executive Director for Flood and Coastal Risk Management, Environment Agency), Jon Chappell (Senior Policy Adviser, National Infrastructure Commission), and Carolyn Otley MBE (Community Resilience Coordinator, Cumbria CVS).

Improving Preparedness and Response at the Environment Agency

During the event, Caroline Douglas presented the Budleigh flood defences as an example of the increasing flood risk due to climate change. She highlighted the crucial role that flood defences play in protecting both lives and livelihoods. Although the image displayed the overtopped defences the impact was far less severe than it could have been. This was due to the flood defence improvements that had been made, emphasising the need for strategic investment in flood defences for both maintenance and ongoing improvement to match the increasing risk.

Caroline provided an overview of the winter period of 2023-24 and the ten named storms that affected the UK. Several of these storms caused significant damage to areas that are not used to experiencing such extreme weather events. Nottingham and Yorkshire were the worst affected areas, and some are still dealing with flooding. The pumps and flood warning services had their busiest day ever, with over 500,000 registrations in one day. The most damaging storms were Gerrit and Henk. The Isle of Wight, affected by storm Jocelyn, is still dealing with the aftermath of a landslip on 24 January.

Caroline explained how climate change is causing an increase in moisture and rainfall events, leading to extreme river and rainfall patterns, highlighting the recent climate change committee report that found 2023 to be the warmest year on record globally. The Environment Agency (EA) is working on planning and understanding risks related to flooding by improving models and assessments. Working to build capabilities, capacity, new technologies, and collaborations with partners to maintain and build more defences and new alternative solutions for the future. To achieve resilience, the EA is focusing on adaptation pathways, natural flood management, coastal transition accelerator programme, and shoreline management plans. The EA is also considering a people- and place-based approach, climate impact, education, and net zero in its work programs. Caroline emphasised the need to act, think about the future, and develop new ideas to maintain flood resilience and help communities adapt to increasing flood risks.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s View on Progress to Extreme Weather Risk

 Jon Chappell gave us an overview of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), set up in 2015 to advise on resilience to extreme events in areas such as energy, transport, water, waste, flood risk management, and digital comms. The national infrastructure assessment is focused on a 30-year timeframe, with a fiscal remit of 1.3% of GDP. The second national infrastructure assessment was published in 2023, which included recommendations on climate change, net zero, and growth across all regions. Chapter 4 of the recent second National Infrastructure Assessment Resilience to Extreme Weather Events report focuses on climate change. The chapter highlights the need for general resilience of infrastructure systems and resilience to climate change, drought, and flooding. The report makes several key recommendations the government must respond to, accept, or reject.

Jon laid bare the fundamental importance of resilience in infrastructure systems, particularly in the context of flooding and climate change. Resilience is crucial to anticipate, adapt, and recover from risks, and it requires setting targets and outcome-based standards. However, a lack of government resilience targets and outcome-based resilience operating standards can lead to missed opportunities during asset replacement periods. Infrastructure operators need to factor in the cost of making their systems resilient to climate change to direct investment accordingly. Emphasising the importance of strategic investment in critical infrastructure, such as water infrastructure, in ensuring resilience to threats like droughts with increasing risk due to climate change. In particular, Jon stressed the importance of the recommendations towards surface water flood risk management and the need for more streamlined coordinated measures to facilitate a more efficient and effective joint approach to risk.

Empowering Community Resilience in Cumbria

Carolyn Otley explained how the Cumbria Local Resilience Forum (LRF) developed community resilience in response to past major incidents. Storm Desmond in 2015 prompted a strong community response, leading to a shift towards building community resilience. This was supported strategically by developing a coordinator's role, a community toolkit, and a plan template to facilitate emergency planning. Over 40 plans are now in place across Cumbria’s local areas.

However, the Millom flood event in 2017 showed that community resilience is more than just having a plan. This incident was a no-notice event in an area without a community emergency plan, but it illustrated the community's response capabilities. A local community group took the lead in the absence of other structures, and this adaptive response enabled local networks and their links to be repurposed to meet local needs in real time. The LRF was then able to support their local response and recovery more effectively. Similar experiences occurred during the 2018 Beast from the East snow storm and the COVID-19 pandemic. Local community groups and networks that could adapt to evolving needs and respond with agility using local capabilities proved invaluable. Emphasising a core tenet that a plan is just a plan, it’s the people with the knowledge, skills, experience, capacity and capacity to act that determines the success of a response. Remarking that, more often than not, events would typically exceed the worst-case scenarios used to inform plans.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a step change in what they were doing. They led the response to COVID-19 for communities. They developed a strategy to encourage and support community action, permitted the setting up of mutual aid groups, provided guidance and information on how to do so safely, established a community resilience coordination structure, and linked into the tactical and strategic command groups. Over 200 new community groups were linked to the county council help lines, enabling them to access local support and leaving statutory responses as a last resort. The key to this approach has been permitting the community to act, support, empower, and give them agency. One key local example has been Keswick, where the local community have undertaken their own emergency exercises designed, led and facilitated by the community, with statutory partners invited and actively engaged in the exercises event. 

Complex risk management perhaps isn’t as complex as we might think it to be

At the end of this panel session, I asked the panel how they consider, prepare and respond to multi-hazard events in light of complex and cascading risks.

Jon Chappell from the NIC regards this as being precisely what we need across sectors, and to do this, we have to have a good understanding. Stating that we need to have the information at the sector level first – individual sector resilience to understand the interconnected systems. This then facilitates open debate on how much we can invest in, for example, water to have a backup supply versus energy resilience and knock-on impacts here. We must thoroughly understand what resilience levels are required within and across systems. That baseline understanding of resilience is foundational to success in this issue. Alongside this, however, there is also the consideration of what level you need government and political judgement of what’s acceptable. A 1/500-year drought or 1/600-year? What’s affordable in the water sector? What level or threshold are we preparing for? We must have a threshold and target and build towards it, and recognise that this is highly tricky for decision-makers.

Carolyn Otley responded by saying that at the LRF level, with regard to measures and standards for cascading risks, from a community perspective, complex risk isn’t all that complicated. Emphasising that it's a lot less complex than it is made out to be, this linked well to a previous point raised during the keynote session by Roger Hargreaves to agree that pragmatic and practical approaches are required in terms of generic common consequences. A consequence-based approach can remove several obstacles to decision-making in the face of uncertainty and complexity; the most common element of risk, however, is the manifestation of common consequences regarding the impact on people and communities. An interestingly well-emphasised point throughout the day was the need for an all-hazard approach using a common consequence management framework to guide decision-making.

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