What are cooling centres and could they soon pop up in the UK?

Cooling centres are commonplace during periods of extreme heat in the US. Credit: AP

With temperatures in the UK reaching unprecedented highs, new measures may be considered to combat the severe heat in the short-term.

The Met Office’s chief executive, Penelope Endersby, warned on Monday that while extreme temperatures remain rare, they are becoming more frequent.

To that end, she suggested one temporary measure – cooling centres.

“We will certainly need to make changes to our infrastructure, transport, hospitals, care, homes, all those sorts of things, as well as to our domestic building designs,” she told BBC Radio 4.

“We need to make short-term changes for things like cooling centres and then longer-term changes, as well as assuming the very good progress we’ve already made as a nation towards net zero.”

So what are cooling centres and could we see them in the UK during future heatwaves?

What are cooling centres?

Cooling centres are air-conditioned spaces temporarily set up by local councils or authorities to offer the public respite from an ongoing heatwave.

They provide shade, water, resting areas and could even have medics on standby.

They are increasingly common in major cities and provinces across the US and Canada, including New York City, Boston, and Ontario.

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The Health Unit in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District, in Ontario, Canada, promotes the use of cooling centres for specific groups of people.

“Some groups are in greater danger of being affected,” its website states, listing the following:

  • Older adults with chronic illness or who take certain medications

  • Babies and young children

  • People taking part in physical activity

  • Anyone working outside for long periods of time,

  • Homeless people

Why not just stay at home?

Many may struggle to keep cool even when staying indoors all day.

One factor is a lack of air conditioning, which the vast majority of households will not have built in to their homes.

According to a report published by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy in August 2021, only between 3-5% of homes had some sort of fixed or portable air-conditioning unit between 2013 and 2019 across the UK.

Even if they own air conditioning units, the current cost of living crisis and soaring energy bills may deter people from using them.

Infrastructure in the UK was not designed for 40C temperatures, meaning it can be difficult for people to keep their homes cool, particularly if they live in tower blocks and do not have access to gardens or an outdoor, shaded area.

Where could they be?

Any public building could host a cooling centre, as has been the case in north America.

Libraries, museums, schools, and community centres are among council-owned buildings that could be temporarily converted into cooling centres.

Arrangements could also be made with privately-owned buildings – such as shopping centres or churches.

A man preparing his bed at a cooling centre run by the Salvation Army in Seattle, Washington, in the United States. Credit: AP

Advice given to local authorities in Canada is to consider if their sites are close to low-income areas – where air-conditioning may not be common – or to neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of older people, who may have mobility issues.

What if you can’t get there?

In Canada, air-conditioned vehicles are sometimes rolled out to reach people who have issues reaching centres.

Cooling centres can also be suggested at different sites voluntarily, with many counties in the US encouraging residents to come forward with any suitable sites, particularly in areas where there are no designated centres.

So, could we see these in the UK?

The heatwave plan for England, published by the government earlier in July, makes no specific mention of cooling centres.

The report does detail the need to provide “extra help” in the community to “care for those most at risk”, which includes isolated older people and those with a serious illness or disability.

“This could come from local authorities, health and social care services, the voluntary sector, communities and faith groups, families and others,” the report states.

“This is determined locally as part of the person’s individual care plan and will be based on existing relationships between statutory and voluntary bodies.”