Houses Built on Sand

Stephen Buranyi

In their report to Parliament last June, the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned that ‘a substantial proportion of local authorities have reduced effort on adaptation.’ For local government, preparing for the long term effects of climate change was a ‘low political priority’ at a time of historic budget cuts.

Local government was supposed to be at the forefront of Britain’s adaptation efforts. The Climate Change Act 2008 created a national framework for adaptation planning, and local authorities had to report on their progress as part of the national performance indicator programme, monitored by the audit commission. The idea, to borrow the classic environmentalist maxim, was to think globally and act locally: central government would provide guidance on the latest climate models and technology; local government would be supported to develop the policy and infrastructure it needed. Adapting to climate change meant building seawalls and permeable road surfaces where they were needed, but it also meant being aware of future floodplains, and making sure no houses were built there.

The government hasn’t made many outright changes to the climate change goals it inherited. This allows it to continue to use the ambitious rhetoric of the 2008 act. Internationally, the UK is viewed as progressive on climate change adaptation. But the coalition government scrapped the national indicator program in 2010, removing the requirement to report on adaptation, as well as the policy guidance. And the Localism Act 2011 abolished the regional tier of government, shifting more adaptation responsibilities onto local authorities even as budgets were being cut. The new National Adaptation Programme, published in 2013, was criticised by the CCC for being too vague to assess. But the larger issue is that without a requirement to pursue adaptation, local efforts will stall, especially under austerity measures. A recent study reported redundancies and cancellations in climate programmes: ‘an easy cut in an era of cuts’, a local authority officer told interviewers.

The official response to the CCC report, released in October, largely ignored its criticisms.

Two weeks ago, members of the CCC appeared before a government inquiry on flooding to answer questions about the report’s ‘damning verdict’ on flood preparedness. In the wake of the winter floods much has been made of the lack of funding for defences, but 38 per cent of local authorities still don’t have an up-to-date local development plan, taking into account climate projections. England, the inquiry was told, is building 4500 houses a year on floodplains.