On 20 April, Future of London brought 18 senior representatives from local authorities, housing associations, consultancies, law and insurance to discuss partnership working to improve London’s resilience to climate change.
This was the second roundtable in our major research project, Managing London’s Exposure to Climate Change. (A summary of the first roundtable, which discussed the relationship between environmental stresses and shocks, is available here.). The event was kindly hosted by Arup, lead sponsor for the programme.
This discussion touched on the legal landscape associated with inaction towards environmental risks such as flooding, severe storms, air pollution and heat stress, before considering the roles of client, developer and policy-maker in maximising the benefit of adaptation schemes.
The session was Chatham House. This post summarises the key points raised.
The legal landscape around climate risk in the UK
- In the UK there are limited options to pursue legal claims related to climate change. Bringing a claim of nuisance or negligence requires the claimant to establish that harm has been caused by a specific person or group, and it can be difficult to establish the person or group that is responsible for negligence. Alternatively, a claim could proceed if a binding agreement has been broken. For example, in 2015, ClientEarth demonstrated that the UK had failed to meet EU Air Quality Directive targets, and their claim proceeded through Supreme court, who ordered that the government must improve their air quality plans.
- There is a contrast between taking legal action against the failure to prevent climate change and the failure to mitigate the effects of climate change. While the latter is legally possible, the former would be difficult to achieve.
- Legal action resulting from environmental risks could be on the horizon, for example, if new homes built in flood risk areas are hit by flooding and owners are unable to claim insurance or struggle to sell the property they might take legal action against the developer or planning authority. (It is significant that Flood Re, the reinsurance scheme that went live in April, excludes newer properties.) However, the extent to which the responsibility could be shared between planning authority, developer and asset-owner is uncertain, with liability most obviously falling on those who authorised the development.
- Despite this, it is in developers’ interest to avoid high-risk sites. It is no longer possible to claim ignorance about environmental risks, and developers want to steer clear of any possibility of costly lawsuits and reputational damage. Has the development industry finally reached a ‘tobacco moment’ on climate change?
The business case for reducing climate risk
- Often, the way developers approach meeting carbon reduction targets is unsatisfactory. For example, specifying the installation of a water storage tank, rather than considering other water management solutions with further-reaching benefits, such as green infrastructure. Meeting targets on paper through a combined heat and power system “that will never be switched on” is also common. Part of the solution could be to “stop talking about carbon and start talking about resilience”, to make developers think holistically.
- Without a clear business benefit, developers are unlikely to respond effectively. If an asset is to be sold on completion, there is little incentive to consider long-term sustainability. However, they are more likely to consider the need for sustainability measures if they have a long-term ownership or management stake.
- Some developers seek to gain competitive advantage by being climate adaptation leaders. These developers understand that less sustainable buildings depreciate more quickly, but this is still new territory. Nevertheless, choosing the right developer will help to maximise sustainability opportunities, as well as driving innovative approaches.
- Regardless of developer motivations, a good client must drive a holistic approach to sustainability from design brief to occupation, ensuring that developers and contractors are clearly instructed and their sustainability work closely monitored throughout. It was felt that, as London’s principal delivery body, the GLA does not currently “push hard enough” on sustainability. Local authorities may not have sufficient expertise to be an effective client.
- Projects deemed successful have often benefited from a sustainability ‘champion’, although this is not always the client. In many cases, it is a community group that ensures the best from a project – numerous river restorations projects were cited. However, it seems less likely that the community would be enthused by more technical adaptation projects.
Aligning objectives, being holistic
- In general, the city is performing differently across different environmental stresses, and its preparation for related acute shock events:
- Flooding has clear statutory responsibilities (led by the Environment Agency and coordinated by local flood authorities), and benefits from being a visible, tangible environmental risk, with common understanding and appeal.
- Air quality has accepted thresholds, but lacks leadership.
- Heat stress is the least tangible and also the hardest to quantify.
- Both the government and development industry need to increase knowledge and good practice around the more challenging areas, particularly overheating buildings and reducing the urban heat island effect. New development is only 1% of the problem; improving and accelerating retrofit efforts is essential.
- While necessary to understand the status of performance by category, it is not always helpful to compartmentalise climate risks in this way.
- Adaptation schemes with a holistic approach are an effective way of garnering local authority support for innovation. If a scheme can be shown to deliver against a range of borough strategies, it is more likely to achieve council buy-in: “None of my schemes have been promoted as just flood reduction – they are about communities”.
- Remembering and promoting the human element of the work is essential. For example, a new SUDS scheme can address environmental issues, but it can also create new public spaces reduce anti-social behaviour. Tying in with wider borough strategies such as public health can also be useful to secure funding from other departments.
- Environmental stresses can have multiple implications. For example, overheating causing a reliance on air conditioning, leading to an increase in air pollution, which in turn deters cyclists and encourages car use. A perfect storm, and another reason to think “humanly and holistically”.
- At a governance level, there is still work to be done to encourage a risk-based approach to sustainability. Developing a hierarchy of needs could help determine acceptable levels of risk and target effort and investment towards not surpassing that level.
- That said, this risk-based approach lacks alignment with the insurance industry, which tends to focus on loss and probability, using advanced modelling techniques. The likely discrepancy between these two approaches makes it challenging to work in collaboration.
Policy and information-sharing
- Policies and strategies don’t always provide clear enough guidance to developers, and contradictions between policies can lead to uncertainty, as well as loopholes. Even where robust and aligned policies do exist, the policy-making body may not have capacity or power to monitor compliance.
- Ensuring stakeholders are operating from robust, consistent evidence bases and risk assessment techniques would help. For example, flood mapping in London is detailed when it comes to tidal flooding, but local authorities lack mapping that shows the impact of surface water flooding—which is where London is most at risk for flooding. Sharing information cross-sector would help, but is often considered too risky, for example due to potential effects on house prices of releasing accurate flood data.
Overall, the discussion highlighted the complexity of reducing environmental risks in the UK, although it is clear that a wide range of stakeholders—including local authorities and other governance organisations, developers, contractors, and financial institutions—have a role to play in implementing resilience measures. Sharing information and working towards clear policy goals can align stakeholders towards the same objectives and achieve buy-in among stakeholders for innovative, effective resilience schemes.
- Sandy Abrahams, Lux Nova Partners
- John Baker, LB Enfield
- Isobel Bruun-Kiaer, Town & Country Planning Association
- Rocio Carrero, UCL
- Kristen Guida, London Climate Change Partnership
- Bevan Jones , Catalyst Housing
- Miles Keeping, Hillbreak
- Greg Lowe, Willis Towers Watson
- Alex Nickson, GLA
- Harriet O’Brien, Arup
- Amanda Robinson, Future of London
- Xaviere Roudeix-Crouan, Grosvenor
- Lisa Taylor, Future of London
- Steven Trewhella, Royal HaskoningDHV
- Polly Turton, Arup
- Richard Walker, Environment Agency
- George Warren, LB Hammersmith & Fulham
- Jo Wilson, Future of London