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Tackling dangerous overheating

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Councils must often act fast to protect residents from the harmful effects of poor weather.

From snow and ice clearance to the planning of flood defences, their actions during winter months are well known.

According to a broad consensus of scientists, they will also be increasingly expected to step up during summertime.

After sifting the latest research, a government’s advisory group on climate change warned last year that within 35 years rising temperatures could triple the number of avoidable deaths, caused in part by overheating

By the 2050s, around 7,000 people could die unnecessarily as a result of hot weather, says the Committee on Climate Change, which counts no fewer than five top scientists among its members.

Heat waves like the one in 2003 which prematurely killed tens of thousands of people across Europe, could become commonplace within 25 years, the committee’s report Managing Climate Risk to Wellbeing and the Economy adds.

Warm weather causes the heart to work harder – including weak ones - and puts the lives of many young and the old in peril, the scientists say.

So what threats does this rising mercury present and what can councils do to manage them?

The committee’s report points to several significant risks, of which authorities should be aware and against which they should take affirmative action.

It points to evidence, indicating that many flats, houses, hospitals and care homes are already at risk of becoming uncomfortable hot. In some cases a lack of effort among public bodies to mitigate these life-endangering threats is also evident.

Around nine in ten hospital wards still have limited ability to control temperatures during hot weather, the committee says. Two out of 10 domestic properties are likely to overheat even during a relatively cool summer.

The last official evaluation in 2007 of public bodies’ performance against the Government’s Heatwave Plan found only three out of 10 care home inspectors and now-defunct primary care trusts thought the plan was put it into practice.

Given this apparent malaise, the committee points to a potential new role for the health and wellbeing boards that are hosted by local authorities.

“Health and wellbeing boards should… consider how to enforce and report on actions set out in the Heatwave Plan for health and social care facilities such as care homes,” it says.

Aside from this auditing role, the committee points to a further role for the many authorities that plan and approve new development.

Councils can help reduce the risks of overheating by‘building resilience’ into their communities, to coin a phrase common to climate change planning. It’s a topic on which the consultancy Aecom has been advising government for some time.

Mike Henderson, an associate director in the design and planning team at the firm, admits that the risks of hot weather have a lower profile than flooding.

“Overheating in the external environment hasn’t really been that high up the agenda,” he adds. The same kind of thinking that applies to managing flood risk can however be applied to overheating, he says.

“The first step is understanding what and where the risks are. You can then find out who are the users of those spaces and map out where the vulnerable groups are,” he says. “You then think about an adaptive strategy. Do we need a new piece of infrastructure? Or do you need to move those populations?”

One simple tactic for cutting the risk to residents of heat waves will be familiar to local authorities: tree planting. “In terms of strategy, the best one is to prevent solar radiation getting to the ground,” Mr Henderson adds.

For every 10% increase in tree canopy in Coventry, temperatures could be cut by 2.5 degrees Celsius, research by Aecom for the authority and Birmingham City Council has found. “Green infrastructure is a critical part of managing a whole host of risks of which overheating is one,” Mr Henderson says.

Another way planning powers can help councils to reduce the risks of overheating is by insisting that new housing is resilient.

According to the Committee on Climate change one in five English homes overheat during even cool summers. That flats are most at risk, according to the committee, is a particular worry as the number of apartment blocks dotting our islands is rising.

While up to 40% of new dwellings are now flats, according to the committee, the building regulations that set standards for new homes “do not account for the health risks from overheating now or in the future”.

So what can councils do to mitigate the risks of overheated homes?

Quite a bit, according to Andrew Eagles, managing director of consultancy Sustainable Homes, which advises the Greater London Authority,

“Local authorities could ask developers whether they have modelled the overheating of the properties,” he says. “It is simple question to ask: have you considered overheating?”

Councils could then request changes to blueprints as they pass through the planning process, Mr Eagles adds. “A lot of things they could do are not a massive additional cost. You could just change the location of the windows, paint the building a different colour, or recess windows.

“When window are recessed, they are shaded when it is hot.” Small alterations can make a big difference to how comfortable homes feel in the summer, Mr Eagles says.

Pete Halsall, chief executive of the Good Homes Alliance, a membership body for developers interested in sustainability, says councils could even devise guidance that requires attention to overheating risk.

“There could be an addendum to local authority arrangements, specifying through planning that developers show how they are going to maintain comfortable temperatures in these buildings,” he adds.

The need for council leadership to tackle this threat can only grow as they become more involved with healthcare services, he adds. “These are serious health issues and councils should know this. There is a duty of care here.”

Research by the alliance has indicated that councils are already having to deal with the consequences of overheating in new housing development.

Its survey of 120 environmental health officers, which is flagged up in the Climate Change Committee’s report, identified 90 reports of overheating. Almost half were for homes built after 2000.

The government’s own guidance on dealing with hot weather is now issued annually through its agency Public Health England.

The latest version in 2014 describes “advanced planning and preparedness” as an essential part of public bodies’ role. When the weather gets “dangerously hot” “the window of opportunity for effective action is very short indeed,” it warns.

Several councils, such as Southampton City Council, already have detailed plans of action in place (see box, Southhampton’s Heatwave plan).

As the heft of evidence of overheating risk grows, there will be fewer excuses for councils to avoid getting ready for hot weather as well as cold or wet. 


On the alert: Southampton City Council’s heatwave plan

Southampton City Council’s heatwave plan describes how alerts are issued by the Met Office over the summer and how its staff and other public agencies should respond to them.

Stephanie Layzell, an emergency planning officer, says the council circulates pre-written emails internally and to other public bodies, such as the local hospitals and universities, when the temperature is set to rise to a certain level.

“These emails identify the likelihood of reaching the threshold (30°C during the day and 15°C overnight) in our region,” she adds. “[They] would contain web links to Public Health England action cards.

“These actions cards… ensure that the appropriate public health advice is directed to vulnerable members of the community.”

When alert levels are pushed higher, the authority coordinates a teleconference between key internal and external contacts. This aims to “reinforce the importance of carrying out the actions identified in the action cards and to discuss any key issues,” Ms Layzell adds.





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