Climate change is a crucial issue for public sector organisations.

They must manage both the potential effects of extreme weather on essential services and their own environmental impact. But there are also Climate change affects every organisation.

And it is not just a matter of coping with the effects but also managing services – and their procurement – in a ‘green’ way. Events over the past few years have highlighted the kind of problems that weather extremes produce. And the predictions are that these extremes are going to become greater and more common in the UK.

Higher temperatures are likely to result in an increase in heat-related deaths among the most vulnerable – the elderly and young – to which local authorities need to plan to respond. Zurich Municipal’s head of education and social housing, Tom Shewry, says that this is a particular concern in respect of care homes and sheltered accommodation. “There is likely to be more pressure on local authorities to provide air-conditioning in housing to ensure the well-being and safety of tenants.”

Certainly, to combat both extreme hot and cold conditions, some authorities may be considering putting more insulation into their buildings. But Zurich Municipal operational risk practice leader Graham Page stresses the need to ensure that any materials used are non-combustible. “It’s important not to solve one risk by creating another,” he warns. Roads can also be affected by very hot weather, with surfaces melting, leading to a higher maintenance bill.

There is the possibility of power outages, and the need to consider refuse collection schedules to ensure that organic refuse left in the heat too long doesn’t cause a health problem. Severe drought conditions could also result in a lack of water for fire-fighting and lower water pressure generally.

It’s not all bad news, however. Zurich Municipal’s principle strategic risk consultant for local government, Phil Coley, is keen to point out that there are opportunities presented by hotter summers.

“We’re seeing some local authorities, particularly in coastal areas, talking about a potential increase in tourism and a boost for local business. People are less likely to go abroad for sunshine.” The concerns here are whether these authorities will be able to cope with increased pressure on facilities and whether there will be more cases of melanoma – sun-induced cancer.

Big freeze

Very cold weather brings its own battalion of problems, as the last winter has shown. Heavy snowfalls and ice can make it difficult for local authorities and their partners to deliver essential services to the community.

For example, it may not be possible to maintain regular deliveries of meals to the elderly and schools may have to be closed. Adequate supplies of salt and grit, as well as snow ploughs, are vital to ensure that roads remain open and accidents are minimised.

A particular concern for many public sector organisations is flooding. At one time, this problem tended to be limited to coastal areas and regions with major rivers; and in view of recent incidents, the UK government has promised finance for flood defences in these areas. But flooding generally as a result of severe storms is becoming more common. Shewry explains: “More frequently, we are seeing floods resulting from heavy rainfall. The problem has been exacerbated by urban infill. There’s a huge demand for new homes – and not much space to build them.

Building on the green belt is frowned upon and using flood plains has obvious dangers unless the right specifications are in place. The alternatives are to build on brown-field sites or fill existing gaps in cities and towns.

“The latter is the most common option, so we’re seeing gardens being sold off to build homes, inner-city green areas being converted into car parks, and individual large houses being demolished and replaced with several dwellings. The result is that there is less scope for natural drainage, so storm water runs into the drainage systems, which in many cases are the original Victorian installations and totally unable to cope. This type of storm flooding is particularly dangerous because it’s largely unpredictable.”

Sustainable = combustible

The UK has had more than its fair share of floods in recent years. The results have been road and school closures, increased demand on maintenance, and the need to commission essential remediation once flood water has gone. All of these place significant demand on local authority services and councils need to be sure that they have the resources to respond.

In addition, extreme weather conditions also put more pressure on fire and ambulance services, with increased call-outs. And, of course severe incidents like floods can have a devastating effect on the local economy.

Insurers have particular concerns relating to building portfolios and management. Page says: “It’s important authorities consider the resilience of their building stock to storm and flood, and assess the flood risk in any area they’re considering building. We can help them identify where high-risk flood areas are and help them build resistance into the buildings to prevent water getting in, or make them easier to repair if they do get flooded.”

Local authorities are expected to lead in reducing emissions, for example using modern methods of construction, but some green materials are more flammable than their non-green counterparts, so organisations have to be careful about the methods they adopt. In terms of housing, Page warns that, in many cases, sustainable can mean combustible. “It’s important to involve insurers at the planning stage to ensure that the proposed building materials are acceptable in order to avoid unpleasant surprises when it comes to arranging coverage.”

Another issue that should be on the public sector’s climate change agenda is reviewing business continuity plans to make sure they are up to date and relevant to risks posed by climate change. For example, it’s important to ensure that any emergency alternative locations are not too close to the buildings they are replacing, as they could be affected by the same weather hazard.

Many local authorities are actively tackling climate change risk. Alarm chairman and head of risk management at Hertfordshire County Council, Paul Dudley, says that he works closely with the council’s climate change unit. “Like many other councils, we commissioned a climate change risk assessment to look at the various services provided and the potential impact of climate change over a long period.”

Coley agrees that authorities need to assess risks in terms of likelihood, impact and how they may need to change the way they do things. “There is a cost to that but the potential cost of not doing it may be greater.”