Britain’s vital infrastructure is under threat from the ravages of extreme weather and climate breakdown, unless ministers take swift action to protect against flooding, heatwaves and drought, government advisers have warned.
Energy networks and water utilities, communications, transport and other essential services are all at risk, said Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, which has published a new report on resilience.
But restoring the UK’s crumbling infrastructure could create new jobs as ministers seek to kickstart the economy after the lockdown. “It’s the nature of this sort of area that it should be possible to build up a head of steam quickly [to create jobs],” said Armitt. “Road maintenance, for example, is easier at the moment as fewer people are using the roads. Active maintenance reduces the need for capital expenditure. And you don’t need years of planning to get shovels on the ground.”
Flood protection projects were another key area, alongside rail improvements and building broadband capacity, he said.
The coronavirus crisis showed the importance of preparedness, according to Armitt, but after the pandemic eases the existing threat of extreme weather, leading to flooding, storm damage, water shortages and other events, will continue to wreak billions of pounds of damage if ministers fail to act.
“Climate change remains the fundamental challenge,” said Armitt, in an interview. “That has not gone away.”
Ministers must set out clear regulations with higher standards for construction as a matter of urgency, he said. They must also be prepared to invest in infrastructure or allow operators to charge the public more for their services to pay for the upgrades needed around the country. “Suppliers say, if you want more resilience, you have to charge more,” he told the Guardian. “Ministers have been loth to pick that up.”
Disasters such as floods were treated as localised problems when they occurred rather than nationwide threats, he said. A fully formed national response to climate breakdown was needed. There should also be more discussion of the costs of nuclear power – which he said would still be needed to ensure the UK’s energy supply while phasing out fossil fuels – and of the benefits of the HS2 rail project, of which he is a supporter, he said.
The government was supposed to publish a National Infrastructure Strategy alongside the Budget in March, but that was delayed as the new chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, decided it needed more time. The impact of coronavirus is likely to mean a further delay.
Thursday’s report urged ministers to set out full resilience standards every five years. Infrastructure operators – including energy, water and transport utilities – should carry out regular stress tests to ensure their systems and services can meet those standards, it said.
By 2023, according to the NIC’s recommendations, regulators should introduce new obligations on infrastructure operators to meet new standards on resilience, undertake regular stress tests, and develop and maintain long-term resilience strategies.
Last year, the UK’s worst power cut for a decade “offered a glimpse of the disruption that can happen when something goes wrong”, according to the report. “The coronavirus outbreak has shown that significant high-impact disruptions can and do happen.”
It was too early to say what the effect of the coronavirus crisis would be, said Armitt. However, it showed government and the public how important it was to have clear plans in place for foreseeable crises, he said.
Some infrastructure had performed well during the lockdown. “Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the way our digital systems have stood up to a massive increase in demand from Zoom calls and so on,” he said. “But everywhere is going to face challenges from the behavioural changes [that might stick after the pandemic] and climate change. I can’t say we’ve done enough.”
Ministers should have a clear discussion with the public about the challenges faced by the UK, to develop a consensus on how they should be tackled, he said. “The government has been reluctant to get out all these issues, the pros and cons, and debate them. But without policy being thought through clearly, we’ve seen targets not met and ministers having to eat their words when it proves difficult to deliver. Understanding fully the delivery challenge enables you to be more effective in delivery, and satisfy public expectations.”