Stresses and Shocks – How prepared is London for climate change?

If all goes well at this month’s COP21 UN climate conference, world leaders will agree on new collective action to address climate change. With 2015 set to be the warmest year on record and unmistakeable signs of climate change acceleration, the impetus for global action is clear. If governments with vastly different agendas and resources can agree on risks and responses, surely stakeholders in London can too, at least where public land and services are concerned. Or can they?

To assess the Capital’s level of operational, financial and legal exposure to an increasingly volatile climate, Future of London is collaborating with Arup and UCL on a major research programme, Managing London’s Exposure to Climate Change. Focused on London’s extensive public property, infrastructure and critical services, the project will assess risks and responses to long-term stresses like air pollution and rising temperatures, and to shocks such as major floods or droughts.

To set the scene, Future of London and UCL hosted a roundtable on 12 November to gather views from a diverse group of senior professionals. They represented the Greater London Authority, local authorities, utility and infrastructure providers, housing associations, insurers, technical specialists and academics. See end of post for a list of participants.

The group discussed three key questions; their anonymised responses are summarised here:

1a. Faced with London’s increasing environmental stresses, how do public and private sector responses differ?

  • Financial leaders such as Bank of England governor Mark Carney are raising alarms about the economic impacts of change, and larger companies such as Marks & Spencer and Unilever have strong sustainability strategies and are sharing the business case for them. However, one practitioner reminded the group that corporate exemplars are few and far between, and this work is even more challenging for smaller businesses. (The resilience of London’s small business community to climate change is a separate concern, highlighted recently by the London Assembly.)
  • While businesses are starting to take a proactive approach, the public sector was seen as more reactive. One participant asked whether it would take a catastrophe to convince public bodies to invest in mitigating against or adapting to climate change risk.
  • One private-sector practitioner described three drivers for his sector: fulfilling statutory requirements, industry peer pressure, and the desire to be reputational leaders. It was agreed that London’s public sector lacks the competitive motivation – and the spending power – of its commercial counterparts. This could be a key intersection for public-private partnerships.
  • A public-sector perspective was that the public is not sufficiently/collectively engaged in climate change for local government to see it as a [political or functional] priority. This is particularly true when local authorities are concerned with their own financial resilience.
  • While specific issues like air quality are a public concern, “climate change” remains too distant and intangible for many to engage with.

1b. Are sectoral roles clear and complementary?

  • A show of hands revealed that participants did not feel that roles in responding to climate risk were clear. One participant pointed out that it is difficult to look at London’s performance holistically, as the city is performing better on some aspects of risk than others.

1c. How is London performing?

  • Assessment of London’s performance against the 2011 Mayor’s climate change adaptation strategy by a GLA working group concluded that:
  • London is doing well on long-term resilience to river and tidal flooding, though surface water is more problematic. Flooding has a clear physical risk; from an asset management point of view, flood damage affects the building itself, rather than its users.
  • London is delivering on drought management, but significant changes will need to be made to manage it in the long term, both to shore up supply through infrastructure development and to manage demand through changes to consumer behaviour. (The precariousness of London’s water supply is exemplified by Thames Water’s swift move from Drought Order to flood management in 2012-13.)
  • While there is evidence of deaths from excess heat and cold in London (and nationally), this problem is not being dealt with as well – this is one area where housing associations and councils could take a greater role in retrofit and in resident education.

Some of the barriers to effective public-sector response – including strategic planning – were cited as:

  • Timescales – in terms of the time and effort involved in shifting from a reactive to proactive stance; and in terms of the adaptation/mitigation spectrum between managing current and future levels of risk.
  • Collaboration – getting stakeholders to act collectively (see question 2).

2. In issues where multiple parties ‘own’ risk, how can key players be mobilised to take collective responsibility and coordinate accordingly?

  • There was disagreement around the table about whether ‘risk ownership’ was a helpful term. One practitioner thought that it should be the public’s collective responsibility to ensure that finite resources are used sparingly. Others saw value in a dedicated person or organisation coordinating and leading stakeholders towards a collective response on a given issue. The approach taken in the draft London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan was cited as a useful example, in its project-by-project assignment of leads and partners.
  • The academics in the room felt they could add value by building evidence and helping to define levels of risk. While communication channels were generally seen as adequate, most agreed that more could be done to target relevant academic work to the needs of local government leaders and budget-holders.

3. What are the most effective ways of engaging the public sector in this agenda?

  • A specific opportunity raised was the devolution of public health responsibility, which has put the onus on local authorities to address certain aspects of climate change. It is known that vulnerable people (e.g. the elderly and people in poor housing) are affected disproportionately. Officers will be particularly attentive to any correlation between responding to climate change and saving money (e.g. improving patient outcomes and reducing their need to use health services).
  • Another practitioner suggested that devolution could be a threat to resilience, as a top-down regulatory approach is necessary to tackle an agenda with so many elements and stakeholders.
  • The role of regulation was seen as a critical tool for the public sector to force the issue, with the caveat that it isn’t too prescriptive. One practitioner gave the example of houses overheating due to thermal ‘over-performance’ built in to deal with cold winters.

Overall, the wide-ranging discussion highlighted a number of complex relationships: between chronic environmental stresses and major events or shocks; between approaches to current and future risks; and amongst the web of stakeholders spanning government hierarchies, academics, specialists, public and private service providers, and the general public.

Future of London’s wider research programme will explore this web in more detail, and start to unpick the areas of agreement and conflict highlighted by the expert contributors we convened. For more information or to get involved, please contact Jo Wilson.


  • Laura Frost, Arup
  • Polly Turton, Arup
  • Oliver Todd, Association of British Insurers
  • Bevan Jones, Catalyst Housing
  • Mike De Silva, Crossrail
  • Rosalind Cook, E3G
  • Jenny Scholfield, Environment Agency
  • Iain Watt, Forum for the Future
  • Alex Nickson, Greater London Authority
  • Xaviere Roudeix-Crouan, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland
  • Suzanne Moroney, Institute of Civil Engineers
  • Nathalie Bellanger, London Climate Change Partnership
  • Jennifer Daothong, London Legacy Development Corporation
  • Marc Beveridge, Public Health England
  • Mathieu Mazenod, RB Kensington & Chelsea
  • Fola Ogunyoye, Royal Haskoning DHV
  • Keith Colquhoun, Thames Water
  • Jennifer Hazelton, UCL
  • James Paskins, UCL
  • Ian Scott, UCL
  • Inge Hartkoorn, Future of London
  • Visakha Sri Chandrasekera, Future of London
  • Jo Wilson, Future of London

NB A number of links to GLA documents were not working when this article was first published.