A major inquiry has found the UK’s critical national infrastructure dangerously at the mercy of extreme weather events. Huw Morris reports
For the meteorologists who tracked it, Storm Arwen was an increasingly horrifying deep low-pressure system sweeping down from the north instead of the prevailing south west. When it struck the UK on 26-27 November 2021, that horror would be felt by millions. Arwen unleashed snow, trapping 120 people on a section of the M62. Roaring winds of up to 98 miles per hour stranded passengers on a train in eastern Scotland for 17 hours. Those winds would topple power lines across north-east England and Scotland.
Almost a million customers lost power, with nearly 4,000 suffering outages for more than a week and dozens of homes still dark 12 days after the tempest. BT’s transition to digital phone lines, which rely on electricity, meant some customers were left without communications or any way of contacting emergency services. Almost 300 military personnel were deployed to support those services. Foresters across the UK, particularly in Scotland, would later report that 16 million trees were felled or damaged. And for three people, one each in Antrim, Ambleside and Aberdeenshire, Arwen would be a death sentence. To the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, made up of highly experienced senior MPs and peers who have endured political storms throughout their careers, Arwen was a “stark illustration” of the threats facing the UK’s critical national infrastructure.
A near miss
Arwen was one of six major storms to hit the UK within 12 months. The committee’s inquiry into the resilience of critical infrastructure, which had gathered evidence for a year and published its findings in October, uncovered an alarming “near miss” in one of those other storms – the near flooding of the national NHS Blood and Transplant Centre, caused by the failure of a Network Rail drainage system.
Network Rail admitted in written evidence to the inquiry there is “a limit to what individual organisations or sectors can do to manage more strategic risks”. It added that managing the culvert “was within our power, but there is the more strategic issue of the centralisation of such an important facility versus a more diverse and potentially resilient model”. Across critical national infrastructure, the inquiry highlighted a panoply of weak spots: the vulnerability of links between different infrastructure sectors; cascading risks caused by extreme weather; and a lack of anticipation by key players – in Arwen’s case, vicious winds coming from an unexpected direction.
“The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy was appalled that critical national infrastructure is not a priority within the government … with no minister taking responsibility”
These led to the most damning weak spot of all. The committee was appalled that critical national infrastructure is not a priority within the government. The then cabinet minister Michael Ellis, who the committee said was “self-described as the minister for critical national infrastructure resilience – simply refused to give oral evidence to the inquiry”. Indeed “his lack of command of this issue”, according to the committee, suggests “a severe dereliction of duty on the part of the government”, with no minister taking responsibility and no cross-cabinet committees driving forward the government’s work on adaptation and resilience. Even COP26 president Alok Sharma, who has chaired the cabinet-level Climate Action Implementation Committee tasked with “building the United Kingdom’s resilience to climate impacts”, told the inquiry he felt unable to give evidence.
THREATS TO CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE
The Climate Change Committee’s adaptation subcommittee highlights future threats:
1) Flooding is set to become more frequent and severe, affecting energy, transport, water, waste and digital communication infrastructure.
2) Projected extended periods of rainfall will also increase the risk of slope and embankment failure – around 8% of the UK’s transport network is at medium to high risk of landslides.
3) Changes in rainfall, combined with population growth, will lead to supply-demand deficits in some water resource zones by the 2050s, with widespread deficits by the 2080s.
4) High temperatures will cause “railway tracks to buckle, electricity cables to sag, signalling equipment to overheat and fail”, and “road
tarmac to soften and rut”.
5) Increases in maximum wind speeds during storms are likely to have “significant implications for overhead power lines, data network cabling and the rail network, as well as for offshore infrastructure and wind turbines”.
The senior MPs and peers suggest all this may be why the government has accepted the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) finding that it is “moving backwards on adaptation”, and has failed to implement any of CCC’s latest adaptation recommendations in full. They added “it is hard to imagine the government taking such a lax approach to any other recognised national security risk”. Indeed, in June 2021 the CCC’s subcommittee on adaptation warned the UK is not ready for even the best-case scenario of climate change, let alone the current trajectory, and that “the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation under way has widened” since its last report in 2017.
Baroness Brown, the subcommittee’s chair, describes adaptation as “the Cinderella of climate change” compared with mitigation: “under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored”. Put bluntly, the UK’s critical national infrastructure faces a major adaptation deficit (see Threats to critical infrastructure). “There are plenty of examples of the extremely serious impact that climate change has already had on our critical national infrastructure and there are bound to be more in the future – almost certainly more serious still,” says Joint Committee chair Dame Margaret Beckett, whose previous roles have included environment and foreign secretary. “But the thing I find most disturbing is the lack of evidence that anyone in government is focusing on how all the impacts can come together, creating cascading crises. “There are simply no ministers with focused responsibility for making sure that our infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.” Beckett argues that Downing Street “must pull all the strands” of government together to mitigate potential disasters, including climate change impacts, and “finally recognise that prevention is better than cure and move on from their dangerously reactive approach to risk management”. Her committee suggests a panoply of responses to the panoply of threats (see below).
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT MUST DO TO TACKLE THREATS TO INFRASTRUCTURE
The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy offered a range of recommendations for the government, including:
1) Establish a dedicated minister of state for critical national infrastructure resilience within the Cabinet Office, who should hold regular coordination meetings with the minister for climate adaptation.
2) Create a statutory forum between the regulatory bodies overseeing infrastructure sectors (Ofwat for water and Ofgem for energy) to address interdependencies, and consider whether regulators’ price reviews encourage resilience-building.
3) All operators of critical national infrastructure should have access to high-quality weather, climate and impact forecasting and modelling, via the Cabinet Office’s Situation Centre.
4) Launch a programme of regional ‘exercises’ to ensure that locally based responders to crises – such as the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities – can prepare for and respond well to extreme weather events
Call for standards
The inquiry’s conclusions are cold comfort for the National Infrastructure Commission, the executive agency responsible for providing expert advice to the government on infrastructure challenges. In 2020, it called on ministers to set out a transparent set of resilience standards for all infrastructure sectors. Regulators must be given explicit duties to promote the resilience of their sectors, it said, while infrastructure operators should develop long-term resilience strategies and regularly stress test them. These should in turn be overseen by regulators. All this should be embedded in the government’s forthcoming National Resilience Strategy. Unfortunately, this strategy has been forthcoming for 18 months. Commission chair Sir John Armitt says the inquiry is “another reminder that getting the governance of resilience right” will be crucial to adapting and responding to the growing stresses on infrastructure networks. “The UK urgently needs a more strategic and joined-up approach to resilience, directed by government and overseen by regulators,” he adds.
Huw Morris is a freelance journalist