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Evaluating UK natural hazards: the national risk assessment

Published Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Despite its relatively temperate climate and stable geography, natural hazards present multiple risks to human activity in the UK. These range from small-scale local occurrences, such as landslides, through regional incidents, such as flooding, to major high impact, low probability events, such as space weather. The impacts of such hazards can be wide-ranging but may include disruption to critical infrastructure and transport networks, detrimental effects on human welfare, and, in some cases, loss of life. This POSTbrief summarises the emergency planning for such hazards undertaken by Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) of the Cabinet Office and published in the classified National Risk Assessment (NRA) and unclassified National Risk Register (NRR).

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Recent examples of high impact events include the winter flooding in 2015-2016 that cost the UK economy approximately £1.6 billion, and the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which resulted in restrictions on UK airspace for several weeks, stranding travellers around the world. Emergency planning for such natural hazards is legislated for under the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), which puts the onus on local emergency responders to plan for civil emergencies. At a central government level, emergency planning is undertaken by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) of the Cabinet Office and published in the classified National Risk Assessment (NRA) and unclassified National Risk Register (NRR).

The first stage in producing the NRA is identifying the natural hazards that could impact the UK. This is primarily undertaken within Government. Each hazard is ‘owned’ by a government department, which is responsible for identifying the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ for each hazard, and for determining its potential impact and likelihood. This permits comparison of each hazard type for prioritisation in emergency planning. Although the CCS issues risk owners with common guidance on the assessment procedure, methodologies for estimating impacts and likelihoods vary between departments, and hence between different hazards. The assessments undertaken by departmental risk owners are compiled by the CCS for publication in the NRA. Before publication, the NRA is scrutinised in an expert challenge process, which is mostly internalised within government.

The UK was one of the first countries to produce a national-level risk assessment and remains a world leader in this policy area. Despite this, commentators have identified several limitations in the current methodology, principally associated with: limited opportunities for bottomup (i.e. non-governmental) engagement; assessing the cumulative effects of multiple concurrent hazards; and the exclusion of long-term trends, such as climate change, from consideration. Alternative risk assessment methodologies have been developed in other sectors (such as utilities providers, the insurance industry and academia), which have been suggested as offering opportunities for future development of the NRA process.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders, and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Mr Tim Aldridge, Health and Safety Executive
  • Professor Nigel Arnell, University of Reading, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow working with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat*
  • Professor Willy Aspinall, University of Bristol*
  • Professor Louise Bracken, Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, University of Durham*
  • Dr Mike Clare, National Oceanography Centre*
  • Mr Rob Gazzard, Forestry Commission*
  • Ms Mel Harrowsmith, Head of Civil Contigencies, Met Office 
  • Mr Ian Lisk, Chair of the Natural Hazards Partnership and Head of Hazards at the Met Office*
  • Mr Lester MacDonald, Scottish Government
  • Civil Contingencies Secretariat,  Cabinet Office*
  • Professor Simon Pollard, Cranfield University
  • Dr John Rees, British Geological Survey
  • Dr Helen Reeves, British Geological Survey
  • Professor Jonathan Rougier, University of Bristol*
  • Dr Hugo Winter, EDF Energy
  • Dr David Blagden, Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter
  • Dr Adrian Champion, University of Exeter
  • Dr Andrew Coburn, Centre for Risk Studies, University of Cambridge
  • Dr Claire Craig CBE, Royal Society
  • Dr Caroline Douglass, Environment Agency
  • Ms Gemma Holmes, Committee on Climate Change
  • Dr Ruth Hughes, Natural Environment Research Council
  • Professor Aled Jones, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University
  • Ms Hannah Jordan, Defra
  • Dr Owen Landeg, Public Health England
  • Dr Anja Schmidt , University of Cambridge
  • Mr David Style, Committee on Climate Change
  • Mr Dickie Whitaker, Oasis Loss Modelling Framework
  • Dr Claire Witham, Met Office
  • Professor Andrew Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex*

* denotes stakeholders who acted as external reviewers of the POSTnote.

POSTbriefs POST-PB-0031

Authors: Jonathan Wentworth; Mike Stock

Topics: Climate change, Emergencies and disaster management, Environmental protection, Flooding, Science

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.