Time to face up to climate change

  • Scientists expect more extreme and unpredictable weather in the years to come
  • Floods can cause misery and substantial, costly claims
  • Housing associations can do a great deal to reduce their exposure through simple planning

Extreme weather is becoming more common and we will have to adjust the way we live in order to cope, according to the latest major piece of scientific research.

In 2014 [Sept], a group of distinguished German academics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, confirmed what many people already felt after the last 10-15 years of floods and snowstorms: the weather is getting worse and major incidents are happening more often.

The scientists found that so-called ‘blocking patterns’, which occur when the high-altitude jet stream jams, and weather patterns get stuck, are becoming more common, leading to the prolonged extreme events that have rocked the UK, from the snow in 2012/13 to the floods in 2013/14.

“Since 2000, we have seen a cluster of these events,” said Dr Dim Coumou. “When these high-altitude waves become quasi-stationary, then we see more extreme weather at the surface.”

Although these patterns cannot yet be firmly linked to climate change, many scientists believe these are exactly the type of patterns we would expect to occur under those conditions, and sensible risk management dictates that we need to act now to mitigate the future effects of more bad weather.

What can housing associations do?

Housing associations can of course do little to affect the weather – but they can do a lot to mitigate its effects, and it’s vital that they incorporate more resilience into their planning.

“For example, it has been well publicised that increased hard landscaping increases the pressure on traditional drainage systems during periods of extreme rainfall,” says Stuart Blackie, Property Team Leader at Zurich Municipal.

“This is compounded by the deterioration of drainage systems, in some cases, as a result of climatic change causing ground movement that in turn impacts on the ability of the drainage system to remain effective.”

Taking proper account of drainage – and site location – is essential when considering where and how to build. “Land shortages, and values, are also likely to have an impact of sites chosen for development, together with both national and local planning policies,” says Stuart.

“Investment in new development must correlate to investment in suitable and sustainable drainage systems and wider infrastructure.”

Existing housing stock

This is particularly true when considering the resilience of existing housing stock, according to Stuart: “Designers are continually coming up with sustainable drainage solutions to meet the ever-increasing challenge, yet there remains the considerable challenge of maintaining the existing and more conventional provision.

“There is a need to improve awareness around the vulnerability of certain designs, materials and construction systems, in order to ensure the investment made in new properties provides enjoyable communities in which to live, whilst being as resilient to climatic change as possible.

“Effectively, there is a need to pre-empt future climate changes more robustly, in order to future proof new build housing stock.”

And this needs to happen now. Anyone who was stunned by TV pictures of flooding in the Thames corridor or across the Somerset Levels last winter, will have seen just how hard serious storms can impact on communities.

While communities and local authorities responded to these challenges with remarkable public spirit, there was still suffering – and cost.

The Government has recognised this, and recently announced £2.3 billion of investment in 1400 flood defence projects, as recognition of the fact that these defences are vitally important to protect homes and prosperity from extreme weather. But critics argue that this is still not enough, and commercial property owners cannot afford to be complacent.

Importance of planning

As well as making sure that all housing stock is as ready as possible to cope with flooding, there needs to be clear planning in place to make sure everyone knows how and when to react.

These plans need to be fully integrated into business continuity planning, with clear triggers and a ready-to-go command and communication structure for when the worst happens.

Effectively, there is a need to pre-empt future climate change more robustly, in order to future proof new build housing stock

Stuart Blackie, Risk Management Consultant at Zurich Municipal

Given that we are living through changing climatic patters, lessons from history may not always reflect future experiences, and it’s vital to keep these plans dynamic and remain ready to learn from what’s going on around you, within your organisations, in different parts of the country, or even on the continent.

“Firstly, consider lessons learnt from previous events, be that within your own organisations, or outside,” says Stuart. “There is a need to be alert to losses experienced by others, the impact of those losses, and the methods of dealing with those, at both a strategic, and a local level.

“Effective emergency planning is also key. Whilst the naturally occurring weather events are not under our control, issues such as planned and preventative maintenance are.

“Any major incident is always far easier to manage if effective preparation is in place. Whilst the timing and severity of storm incidents cannot generally be pre-judged, the possible extent of damage and its impact could often have been foreseen.”

That level of foresight isn’t always easy to achieve, but, Stuart says, it is becoming more and more essential as future weather looks increasingly uncertain – and dramatic.

“With busy workloads and stretched budgets, emergency planning isn’t always going to be the highest priority, but limited time invested at planning stage can make significant savings in terms of resource and impact in the event of a loss.”

Find out more and access helpful guides and insight with our new Flood Risk Resource.