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Learning to live differently

Posted on 02 December 2014

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” A quote attributed to the great tramper of the Lake District and Blackburn Rovers fan Alfred Wainwright sprang to mind when reading the coverage surrounding the fact that excess winter deaths hit their lowest ever level last year.

That might seem like a flippant response to the fact that, although down by 42% on the previous year, some 18,000 people – the vast majority of them over 75 – died because their homes were cold and damp or because they simply couldn’t cope with winter illnesses. However, the sentiment Wainwright was voicing has something to say to us about the way we relate to the elements.

The sharp decline in deaths is put down to the fact that last winter was a mild one, and the predominant strain of flu doing the rounds not particularly virulent. It got me to thinking that perhaps one of the impacts of a changing climate may be that these shameful statistics become a thing of the past. Milder winters surely means fewer people living in fuel poverty and putting their health at risk by not keeping warm.

Plan for extreme weather conditions

Flood signA report published by the Met Office earlier this year paints a more complex picture. While the general trend is undoubtedly towards milder, wetter winters, the key impact of climate change will be variability and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather conditions. Cold snaps won’t be the norm but won’t be uncommon, and at the other end of the spectrum we’re likely to experience more heatwaves, more drought
and more flooding.

Back to Wainwright. The point of the quote is about being prepared for what nature can throw at you. The challenge is how we can prepare communities and households in the UK for the unpredictable extremes that are now locked into our system and will get worse without stronger action on carbon emissions.

Scandinavian countries have far fewer excess winter deaths, put down to having much better insulated buildings. Similarly countries in the southern Mediterranean are much more accustomed to coping with water shortages, It says something about our lack of preparedness in the UK that Public Health England researchers are warning of an increase of more than two-thirds in heat-related deaths while at the same time NICE is preparing guidance on fuel poverty.

Focus existing resources

This presents a massive infrastructure challenge for the country, but don’t expect it to attract the same level of investment afforded to new roads and tunnels under ancient monuments when the Chancellor makes his autumn statement.

One thing George Osborne could do is take heed of Wainright’s wise words – not by buying us all new jumpers but by focusing existing resources on helping us adapt our behaviours to cope with what may be coming. On a whole range of fronts we need to learn to live differently as a nation. Taking control of our bills by using less, wasting less and paying less for our energy is a start. But increasingly the same approach is being used to help people reduce their water use in areas of stress or adapt their homes and gardens to protect them from flooding.

Invest in sustainable behaviour change

Getting people to change their behaviour is both a science and an art – and we’re learning all the time how to do it effectively. Groundwork currently manages a partnership bringing together the Building Research Establishment, Energy Saving Trust, Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and the New Economics Foundation to help the Big Lottery Fund understand better how it can support environmental behaviour change through its programmes.

Energy thermostatCommunities Living Sustainably is a test and learn initiative being driven by 12 partnership projects across England. This programme, like a number of others before it, has recognised the importance of intensive, face to face support and advice from trusted local experts as being key to changing behaviour and to making these changes stick. This approach becomes doubly important when supporting those who are more vulnerable or isolated.

Two things the Chancellor should
consider tomorrow

It is, of course, time consuming and expensive work but if it can ease the burden on an overstretched NHS then we should explore all avenues to scaling it up. Two thoughts on how. In his statement this week the Chancellor could signal a change to the Winter Fuel Payments system. One of the last remaining universal benefits, the payments cost the government some £2bn.  

Whilst we shouldn't underestimate the value of this to those in real need, the reality is that the majority of the money goes to pensioners who arguably don’t need the help.  Spending an element of that on a programme of face to face support for those in most need means that help with rising fuel costs will be accompanied by changes that lock in savings through more sustainable living. If the money needs to be matched then how about scooping up the £40m in penalties handed to Drax and InterGen by Ofgem for failing to meet their targets for delivering energy efficiency measures? There’s a long list of energy companies sat outside the headteacher’s office waiting to be punished so that number is only going to go up.

So, no new money, just a smarter focus on need. Investing now on the basis of evidence to save the NHS and taxpayer bigger expense in the future. Providing relief from poverty while giving people the knowledge and support to take more control over their lives. Surely a case worthy of consideration by any Chancellor.

Post by Graham Duxbury, Chief Executive,
Groundwork UK

Groundwork Chief Executive Graham Duxbury