Birmingham – climate change and vulnerable communities

Birmingham's Climate Change Adaptation Partnership is putting health inequalities at the heart of its strategy. It's offering a range of tools and approaches to identify which communities will need most help to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Key learnings for other councils

  • Adapting to climate change cuts across all service areas and agencies
  • Birmingham has taken a partnership approach to developing its adaptation work programme
  • Bringing together the combined resources of several organisations has helped to develop a focused, resourced work programme
  • Assess risks, plan adaptation priorities, take action, get the message across.


Climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, including floods, droughts and heatwaves. The health impacts are likely to be significant: for example, the 2003 European heatwave killed 32,000 people.

Cities are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures. Birmingham's city centre is already on average four degrees C warmer than the surrounding countryside, but climate models often fail to take this into account.

The problems and how they were tackled them

Birmingham's Climate Change Adaptation Partnership is a sub-group of ‘Be Birmingham', the city's local strategic partnership (LSP). As well as the council, it includes the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England and health agencies.

It is assessing the risks and opportunities that arise from climate change in the city and developing an action plan. The partnership is responsible for meeting national indicator (NI) 188 - Planning to adapt to climate change.

But the local authority also sees itself as having a ‘duty of care' when it comes to preparing for these projected changes. This means focusing on the needs of the city's most vulnerable communities. These are more likely to be affected by extreme weather that is a likely consequence of climate change.

The climate change adaptation partnership has a work plan with four priorities:

  • assess risks
  • plan adaptation priorities
  • take action
  • get the message across.

An important part of assessing risk is developing a practical risk mapping tool. This tool - currently under development - is based on climate data specific to Birmingham. However, it also includes information on health inequalities and likely vulnerability to experiencing the impacts of climate change.

Data gathered thus far suggests that poorer people are more likely to live on flood plains that are at risk to varying degrees. Flooding has been linked to a number of health impacts. These include the actual danger to people during a flood, and the mental health impacts of the stress of having homes flooded.

Cities are already hotter than rural areas because the built environment - buildings, roads, pavements, absorbs more heat. This is called the urban heat island effect (UHIE). Finding ways to adapt to temperature rises is therefore even more pressing in built-up areas. Primarily this involves creating more green spaces and tree cover - so-called ‘green infrastructure'.

The adaptation partnership has commissioned a study on green infrastructure for Birmingham, which reported that the most deprived areas of the West Midlands are clustered in city centres. The study says that "as a result of this, it is likely that these areas will be particularly badly affected by the UHIE, causing an increase in health inequalities in the region."

When it is finished (in 2011) the risk mapping tool will identify areas that are particularly under-provided with green infrastructure. These are also more likely to be areas with higher health inequalities. Users can prioritise these and develop new green spaces to help reduce the likely increases in temperature and other severe weather impacts.

Outcomes and impact

The adaptation partnership has already highlighted the opportunities of risk mapping for considering health in planning for climate change. Engaging health services in the work of the partnership has raised their awareness of the health impacts of projected higher temperatures. Richard Rees, Climate Change Adaptation Officer for Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Environmental Partnership, explains:

"Winter deaths have obviously been an issue for the health service. But we've been saying to them, ‘that is an issue now, but what about in 30 years time when the summers are going to be, on average, three degrees C hotter?' And they're saying, ‘We didn't actually realise that'."

Keith Budden, Environmental Partnership Manager at Be Birmingham, acknowledges that adapting to climate change is something of a peripheral concern to the city's primary care trusts (PCTs).

"It's not as important as something like smoking, where the death rates are just vastly higher, but we do need to start planning now as the potential risks are huge."

Many adaptation measures will include providing a greener infrastructure, which could contribute to reducing health inequalities. For example, building more parks in disadvantaged areas to help adapt to climate change will also provide an opportunity for people living in these areas to access more open space.

This could potentially lead to improve levels of physical activity and reduce obesity. Increasing the number of street trees will improve air quality and reduce respiratory diseases.

The risk mapping tool won the 2009 Local Authorities Research and Intelligence Association (LARIA) Excellence in Research Award for its innovative methods of applying data

2009 LARIA Excellence in Research Award - on the University of Birmingham website


The overall budget for Birmingham's adaptation partnership work has been £370,000 over three years. This has included money from the Working Neighbourhoods fund, which partners have helped to match fund.

Next steps

The risk mapping tool will be complete in September 2011. However, this project is already informing another initiative, Buccaneer, or Birmingham Urban Climate Change with Neighbourhood Estimates of Environmental Risk. This aims to make this data more practical and real for people and helps to devise solutions for how communities can adapt to climate change.

Buccaneer includes representatives of the Birmingham Health and Wellbeing Partnership. This is so that the project prioritises climate change adaptation in areas with the highest health inequality and most severe risks.

This work will lead to supporting communities that are most vulnerable to begin developing neighbourhood adaptation action plans to help reduce the risks from climate change. These will be prepared with local people and businesses and will include practical recommendations. These will include increasing the amount of green infrastructure in an area - street trees, parks and so on.

Andrew Donald, Chief Operating Officer at NHS Birmingham East and North, says that:

"We think that climate change and sustainability are important, which is why we're involved… It's a long haul though because, at the end of the day, it's about changing people's attitudes and trying to demonstrate a cost-benefit for your organisation."

On the point of changing attitudes, Rees acknowledges that, when presented with the likelihood of hotter temperatures, local people "…don't immediately think of the risks, they usually think it's fantastic because they'll get better summers."

"The main problem for adaptation is that people don't understand it - it's a jargon word and so if you talk about extreme weather events and what the weather is likely to be like in the summer in 20 years time … that's more easily understood."

Rees says that developing a communications strategy on adaptation that addresses the assumptions about hotter weather head-on is critical. The partnership is about to write a strategy to do this that will be targeted at three audiences: the public sector, the private sector and local people.

Contacts and links

Maria Dunn
Head of Development Policy 
Birmingham City Council
Email: [email protected]

Climate Change Adaptation Partnership

Birmingham's climate change risk mapping programme

Green infrastructure: an evidence base for Birmingham