Preparing for Extreme Risks (RARPC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:14 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Mair Lord Mair Crossbench 5:14, 12 January 2023

My Lords, it was a privilege to be a member of this House’s Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning under the expert and excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot. We all welcome the Government’s positive and constructive response to our report, accepting most of our recommendations. We also welcome the publication last month of the UK Government Resilience Framework, already referred to in this debate by a number of noble Lords. Much of this embraces the key principle of strengthening our national resilience that we emphasised in our report. I will speak on the essential need for preparedness and resilience in the context of our critical national infrastructure, emphasising the crucial role of new technologies and data in achieving this.

We all rely hugely on electricity and the internet, but we are vulnerable to cascading failures that could proliferate rapidly and cause widespread devastation. Important interdependencies that exist across risks have been identified by the Royal Academy of Engineering in its influential 2021 report, Critical Capabilities: Strengthening UK Resilience. Understanding these interdependencies is crucial and calls for systems thinking. Where infrastructure systems fail, the effects often cascade, knocking out critical services. An example is the flooding of Lancaster during Storm Desmond in 2015, which led to the loss of electricity supply to 61,000 properties, the situation returning to normal only after six days. The loss of electricity resulted in loss of communications and internet signal. The hospital had back-up generators and fuel for 14 days, but A&E became the first port of call for many when access was lost to 111, GPs and pharmacies. Other care facilities such as nursing homes did not have back-up generators. Schools closed and faced a challenge of communication with parents. Retail was disrupted, with only a few ATM machines working. Water and sewerage were disrupted in the more modern buildings, since they also relied on electricity. This case illustrates just one example of the vulnerability of infrastructure and society to loss of electricity and the resulting cascading effects.

In its Global Risks Report 2020, the World Economic Forum places the failure of critical infrastructure among the top 10 risks to the global economy. There are tragic examples of the risks caused by deterioration of infrastructure and lack of maintenance. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed in 2007 without warning during evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145, involving over 100 cars. The bridge was only 40 years old. The Morandi Bridge in Genoa, which was only around 50 years old, collapsed during a summer rainstorm in 2018, killing 43 people. Both bridges badly needed design checks and maintenance. Neither bridge was equipped with sensors to give warning of deterioration or change in behaviour. Availability of such data would almost certainly have prevented the collapses.

Closer to home, there was a major infrastructure incident at the Toddbrook Reservoir in 2019, when a period of heavy rainfall triggered a partial collapse of the dam spillway. A complete breach would have presented a grave threat to life for those in the nearby town of Whaley Bridge. Some 1,500 people were temporarily evacuated from their homes. Professor David Balmforth, who led an independent review into the incident, gave evidence to our committee. He concluded that the dam spillway failure was due to both poor design and incomplete maintenance. The incident was clearly a near miss and highlights the need to quantify the progress of infrastructure degradation and prioritise spending accordingly. Our report recommended the creation of an appropriate depreciation register for critical national infrastructure that identifies ageing infrastructure. Will the Minister confirm that the Government support this recommendation?

The emphasis on risk assessment should increasingly be on preparedness and resilience. In the context of critical national infrastructure, innovative technologies now exist for obtaining the necessary data to achieve this. We are in a digital revolution. Fibre-optic sensing and wireless sensor networks, together with imaging from drones and satellites and the use of AI, provide rich sources of data on the engineering performance of key parts of our infrastructure, especially where it is ageing. This is particularly applicable to nuclear power stations, dams, flood defences, water and gas pipelines, railways infrastructure, tunnels and bridges. Combined with good modelling and “what if” experiments, such technologies are a much-needed, cost-effective investment to improve the degree of preparedness and resilience relating to our critical national infrastructure.