The PSI Blog

Responding to heatwaves in the UK: can communities help vulnerable people?
Kevin Burchell and Ben Fagan-Watson

This article is based on a paper, What does community resilience look like in practice? How institutions see the role of communities in responding to heatwaves in the UK, presented at a conference, Architecture and Resilience on a Human Scale, at the University of Sheffield on 11 September 2015.

One of the confident conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that it is very likely that heatwaves around the world will increase in frequency, duration and intensity in coming decades. Defra’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment in 2012 estimated that ‘hot weather accounts for around 1100 premature deaths a year in the UK. By the 2050s, this figure is projected to increase by between 580 and 5900, with the greatest risk in London and southern England.’ Such extreme events will create difficulties for health services and put pressure on other infrastructure, too, through higher energy demand for cooling, heat damage / disruption to energy infrastructure, and failure of water supplies. Increasing temperatures in excess of approximately 25°C are associated with excess summer deaths in the UK, with higher temperatures being associated with greater numbers of excess deaths

Naturally, government – particularly at local authority level – has plans in place for multi-agency, institutional responses to heatwaves (and other emergencies), as many public bodies have statutory duties to prepare for disasters. Such plans are essential. The experience of the European heatwave in 2003 is instructive and sobering: it has been estimated that as many as 70,000 excess deaths may have occurred across Europe due to that year’s hot weather. While vulnerability to heat has many different aspects, the elderly, the ill and disabled, and more deprived social groups are typically the most vulnerable, especially those living alone, as well as babies/infants

At present, contingency planning in the UK focuses almost entirely on what public authorities should do during heatwaves. What has been missing so far is a sense of what communities themselves can do, other than being regarded as an extension of the work of public bodies. A report in 2011 by Clare Twigger-Ross and colleagues noted that a failure to appreciate the complexities of communities can lead to a waste of local knowledge and expertise, lack of trust in authorities and divisions in communities. Yet there is little community involvement at present in the plans of public bodies and, at worst, the limited mentions of community action can seem like an afterthought rather than a carefully considered part of overall responses.

A substantial proportion of the work by public bodies in the event of a heatwave is communication and dissemination of information. But the desire to communicate key public health messages may be more difficult on heatwaves than on other issues; a study published in 2009 by Vanessa Abrahamson and colleagues found that the intended target groups for messages about heatwaves may not be receptive to messages from public bodies; few of the respondents interviewed (aged 72-94 years) considered themselves either old or at risk from the effects of heat, even though many had some form of relevant chronic illness, and ‘do not think of themselves as the intended recipients of heatwave warnings’. Indeed, the study authors found that some respondents saw state intervention as ‘uncalled for, intrusive, patronizing and infringed upon or threatened individuals’ independence, or was an inappropriate use of resources’.

In response to these challenges, we have initiated the Urban Heat project . This 18-month project has the objective of developing community-led resilience to heatwaves in vulnerable areas. The project draws on action research and co-creation methodologies, and will consist of three case studies, all focusing on areas of London in which disadvantage is relatively high: Inner London (Dalston, Hackney), between inner London and the outer suburbs (Tooting, Wandsworth) and suburban London (Ivybridge housing estate, Hounslow). Through this research, we aim to show how community-led responses can be articulated, practised and realised, and will attempt to integrate these with the existing plans of local institutions.

Read the full paper: What does community resilience look like in practice? How institutions see the role of communities in responding to heatwaves in the UK

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