If there is one theme that has emerged stronger and louder in local government as a result of the series of disasters in the first half of 2017 it is that however finely-honed an emergency plan may be on paper, it is your ability to connect with your community that really makes a difference.
Serious incidents from the London Bridge attack to the Manchester Arena bombing, to the Grenfell Tower fire, have tested community cohesion. They have also tested the local authorities where they have taken place, which reacted with varying degrees of success in dealing with the immediate impact of the events and the shock and panic among the people affected.
Many are now considering their policies to ensure they are effective. And while most will find they are well prepared, others, notably the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in which the Grenfell Tower disaster took place, and which was widely criticised for its inadequate response, will be undergoing a radical rethink.
Councils have a range of responsibilities when emergencies take place, set out in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. A guide to the act for councillors by the Local Government Association outlines the kinds of events covered, ranging from explosions and fires to disruption to transport to epidemics to terrorist attacks.
It sets out the duties councils are charged with in dealing with the impact of such events, but also points to bigger responsibilities, less easy to define and concerned with the general welfare of the community.
Westminster City Council has gained a reputation for its expertise in dealing with emergencies going back to the London bombings of 2005 and earlier. As a central London authority it has experience not only as a target for terrorist incidents - the Westminster Bridge attack earlier this year being the most recent - but also in organising large-scale public events. The city council has provided advice and support to several other local authorities ranging from Manchester to Kensington and Chelsea.
Chief executive Charlie Parker stresses that councils must have sufficient staffing to enable them to continue functioning normally when key personnel step out of their usual roles to help in an emergency. Staff must be well-trained and regular exercises are needed to ensure the emergency planning does is not purely ‘desk-based’.
‘A local authority is a community leader,’ he says. ‘Its role is to provide leadership, both in practical ways and by collaborating with partners and providing reassurance.’
Stephen Baker, spokesperson on civil resilience and community safety for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils, points out that recent events have created a more complex set of potential demands.
In an area like Suffolk for which he is responsible, he says, emergencies are likely to impact on fairly specific geographical areas. If an accident happened at the Sizewell B nuclear reactor, for example, the area affected would be quite clearly defined.
But a terrorist attack can affect people from a much larger area, including some from other parts of the country or even from abroad. It is crucial, he believes, is to be aware of who could be affected and to make them the heart of the response and recovery exercise.
‘When we undertake an emergency exercise we study our response and see where we can learn and improve next time,’ he says. ‘But some of these recent events are in a different league. ‘They’ve opened up a whole new perspective because it’s a different definition of the “community” that’s affected. In Manchester, for example, some of the victims came from far away, and even more so with the London Bridge attack. It makes it for a much more complex response, which we are all having to think about carefully.’
Mr Baker believes the traditional two-stage approach involving response followed by recovery is no longer adequate. The needs of the victims, their neighbours and friends and the community as a whole mean that the recovery process must begin at the same time as the initial response.
There must be a much bigger focus on effective communications. With the rise of the social media in particular, people need accurate and reliable information immediately and continuously as events unfold.
The role of elected members has become more important. Recent events have shown the pivotal role councillors have, as representatives of the communities that elected them, to help calm fears and restore confidence.
Crucially, there are many mundane requirements that must be dealt with carefully. Nowadays, for example, tragic events often attract large volumes of floral tributes at the scene. The council must find a way of moving them, at some point, in a sensitive and tactful way.
A key word in these discussions is ‘resilience’ - defined by the Local Government Information Unit as ‘strategies that draw together the institutions, communities, and citizens in the areas they are responsible for....resilience strategies only work effectively if they are part of a holistic approach that connects citizens, communities and institutions across the public realm’.
Robin Tuddenham, chief executive of Calderdale Council and Mr Baker’s deputy spokesman on resilience and community safety, underlines the need for collaboration. When serious floods swept through parts of the West Yorkshire on Boxing Day 2015, Calderdale called on a ‘mutual aid protocol’ to help the 2,000-plus people directly hit.
‘There’s no way a council like Calderdale could be ready for the scale of response required,’ he says. ‘There used to be a mentality that you had to resolve these things on your own, but it’s just not realistic. You must have a collaborative approach.’
There is no doubt that local authorities are working together as never before, often merging services or creating formal alliances. But an increasingly business-based approach could pose challenges. Questions about the Grenfell Tower tragedy include whether the outsourcing of housing management by Kensington and Chelsea may have contributed to a lack of oversight which may in turn have increased the fire risk because of a lack of direct oversight of safety standards.
But the main theme in the top ranks of local government when discussing emergency planning is the need for a responsive, humanistic approach.
As Mr Tuddenham of Calderdale puts it: ‘You need to be agile and ready to respond. It’s not enough just to operate to the letter of the law. You’ve got to be ready, visible and responsive.’ Or, as his colleague Mr Baker in Suffolk says: ‘Get out there and be human’.
This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here for your free copy.