MPs highlight major national security risks to critical infrastructure

MPs call on government to get a grip on national security climate risks on critical infrastructure.

A committee of senior MPs and peers has implored the UK government to get a proper grip on the major national security risks posed by the effects of climate change on critical national infrastructure (CNI), such as power, water, transport and communications.

The parliamentary scrutiny committee, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, cites some recent examples of the effects of severe weather in a damning report out today – Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change. These effects include:

  • The deaths of three people from a train derailment in Scotland, after heavy rainfall in August 2020;
  • Almost a million people losing power, some for extended periods of time, after high winds brought down power lines in north-east England and Scotland during Storm Arwen in November 2021, with associated communication outages; and
  • A failure of railway drainage systems that nearly caused the National Blood Bank in Bristol to flood.

The cross-party committee, chaired by Dame Margaret Beckett MP, said there was overwhelming evidence that climate change is already having an impact on UK infrastructure.

It is also clear, according to the committee, that no minister has been taking responsibility for adapting UK infrastructure to the effects of climate change. Their report suggests that this reveals an extreme weakness at the centre of government.

The committee accuses the self-described minister for infrastructure resilience in the Johnson administration – the then Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis MP – of a severe dereliction of duty for refusing to testify before them.

The committee has been gathering evidence for its inquiry for the past year. It held an evidence session during the heatwave of July 2022, when temperatures peaked at 40.3 degrees Celsius. But the MPs and peers warn that even more severe weather – and consequent impacts – will be prevalent soon. 

Experts predict that high temperatures are likely to cause electricity cables to sag and roads to soften and rut. Flooding is expected to be more severe, and the consequent failure of railway embankments more frequent.

The dependence of other infrastructure sectors on electricity – which is partly a consequence of the vital transition to net zero, as more polluting fuels are replaced – creates further vulnerabilities, the committee said. Renewable power and electricity cables are more susceptible to the effects of extreme weather than gas and other fossil fuels.

Despite these risks, the committee found very little ‘join-up’ between the various CNI sectors, and no formal mechanism for collaboration or information sharing on their interdependencies.

Dame Margaret Beckett MP, chair of the Joint Committee, said: “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.  

“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. 

“Storm Arwen showed how quickly the effects of a power shutdown can impact on other sectors. People were left without any access to their landline phones after the storms, and unable even to call emergency services in areas with a poor mobile signal. These cascading crises are a major danger to the functioning of the UK economy, and to society – that’s why this is a serious risk to national security. 

“Events such as Storm Arwen and the summer heatwave are going to happen more and more often. We heard just last week that the UK may face blackouts early next year if we lose further gas supplies from Europe. The new prime minister must pull all the strands of government together to mitigate against potential disasters, including climate change impacts. 

“This government must finally recognise that prevention is better than cure and move on from their dangerously reactive approach to risk management.”     

The Committee made a large number of recommendations, including for:

  • The establishment of a dedicated Minister of State for CNI Resilience within the Cabinet Office, who should hold regular co-ordination meetings with the Minister for Climate Adaptation;
  • The creation of a statutory forum between the regulatory bodies overseeing CNI sectors (for example Ofwat for water companies and Ofgem for energy), to address interdependencies, along with a review of whether regulators’ price review processes encourage resilience-building;
  • 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.

The Joint Committee’s report backs the National Infrastructure Commission’s previous calls for stronger infrastructure resilience.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission said: “The Joint Committee’s report is another reminder that getting the governance of resilience right will be crucial to the success of attempts to adapt and respond to growing stresses on our infrastructure networks.

“Parliamentarians have reached the same conclusion as us: the UK urgently needs a more strategic and joined up approach to resilience, directed by government and overseen by regulators.

“We hope this added pressure will lead to the rapid publication of the National Resilience Strategy, to start the process of providing that strategic direction.”

The National Infrastructure Commission published a major report, Anticipate, React and Recover: Resilient infrastructure systems, in 2020. It called for government to set out a transparent set of resilience standards for all infrastructure sectors; for regulators to be given explicit duties to promote the resilience of their sectors; and for infrastructure operators to develop long-term resilience strategies and carry out regular stress tests overseen by the regulators.

A separate 2019 report by the Commission proposed that relevant regulators’ duties are updated to ensure they include a responsibility to promote resilience, and also called for greater collaboration between regulators.

Click here to read the Joint Committee report: Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change.

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