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The Research Brief: UK housing cannot cope with hotter summers

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, think tank, charity and NGO world. See more editions of the Research Brief here.

What are we talking about this week? Climate adaptation in UK homes: Energy suppliers’ role in preparing customers, a new report by the think tank Green Alliance in collaboration with energy company, Ovo. It was written by Green Alliance’s outgoing head of climate policy, Helena Bennett, and policy analyst Johann Beckford.

Green who? Green Alliance is an independent think tank and charity which focuses on providing research into how the UK might better look after our environment and tackle climate change. Founded in 1979, Green Alliance has been headed up by Shaun Spiers since 2017, and last month published its annual net zero tracker, which looks at the UK’s progress on reaching net zero.

What’s the gist of the report? Like the rest of the world, the UK is already dealing with the impacts of climate change. That means hotter summers, wetter winters and increased frequency of flash flooding. And this extreme weather is here to stay. In its report, Green Alliance claims that too much emphasis is currently being placed on climate mitigation, whereby policies are geared up to tackle the damage caused by rising temperatures once it has already happened.

Instead, the report argues, the UK should put more effort into policies that will help us adapt to climate damage (climate adaptation), such as ensuring our housing stock won’t overheat, or making sure we have plans in place to stop flooding and water damage. The report is clear that the lack of focus on adapting the UK’s infrastructure isn’t only a problem for policymakers but is obvious in media coverage of climate change too. This has left UK residents in the dark about what climate change could mean for their homes over the next few years.

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Oh dear. So how will climate change affect UK households? Well, the Green Alliance report highlights that there are several key areas where climate change is set to have a real impact on UK residents.

First, overheating. Remember the heatwave in 2022? Temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius are going to become a permanent feature of UK summers. In that year alone, there were tragically 3,271 heat-related deaths. We have spent a lot of time – understandably – over the past few years talking about how badly UK homes are prepared for winter due to our leaky housing stock with poor insulation. But we’re in just as tricky a position when it comes to hot summers.

Second is the threat caused by wildfires, which the report says caused 311 deaths between 2021-22. Blazes are set to become more frequent due to rising temperatures. Green Alliance points out that timber-framed houses in the UK, and buildings with flammable cladding, are particularly vulnerable.

The third issue the UK faces is increased flooding. The UK is particularly ill-prepared: according to the report, 1.8 million people live in areas of significant flooding risk.

That’s a lot! Anything else? Unfortunately, yes. The authors also point out that the UK is at risk of increased coastal erosion, with around 370,000 homes under threat due to rising sea levels. Changes to soil moisture have also left a number of households exposed to subsidence (when the ground beneath a building sinks). According to the research, 5.75 million properties are exposed to a high or medium risk of this happening during the 2030s.  

Bleak. What can we do about it? Thankfully, the report also contains several recommendations for policymakers and energy companies. On overheating, Green Alliance recommends expanding communication campaigns around home insulation programmes, including information on how retrofitting can help to keep homes cool as well as warm. The think tank also suggests energy bills support should be provided to vulnerable households during extreme heatwaves.

The report suggests that energy suppliers could offer to pay the electricity bills of those on low-income benefits such as Universal Credit, or those with pre-existing health conditions on days where the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius. On flooding, Green Alliance suggests that energy companies and policymakers should work with insurers to properly communicate with people in high-risk areas, including telling them how they can prepare for flooding and other specific local risks.

The report also suggests energy companies should put more pressure on government to bring forward a climate adaptation strategy for UK homes, with measurable targets on the number of existing homes made resilient to overheating. The think tank adds the government should focus on building the workforce and skills levels needed to deal with climate adaptation and mitigation, and improve climate education for the public.

In a sentence? We have spent a lot of time and effort developing policies to cope with the effects of climate change after they have happened. Instead, we must focus on reducing the damage happening right now, and the damage that will happen in the future.

Read the full report from Green Alliance here.

If you have a report, briefing paper or a piece of research that you’d like featured in the Research Brief, get in touch at spotlight@newstatesman.co.uk.

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