Crisis planning in a time of change

By Kersten England | 15 March 2022

If there was ever an emergency that highlighted the central importance of resilience for all levels of Government and society, COVID was it.

All parts of society need resilience: the neighbours we chat with, the shops we spend in; the pubs we meet up in; the health services that keep us well; the policemen and women that protect us and keep us safe; the schools our children go to; the community groups and charity organisations we use and spend time with, and so on.

Local authorities have been at the heart of the pandemic response and the last two years have seen councils provide a lifeline for the communities we serve, in particular, delivery of vital services and support to those most in need – the emergency food parcels, the welfare calls to residents, the grants to local traders struggling to survive.

All the while, councils continued to deliver the very same services they do day in, day out. The bins still got collected, the streets swept, and core services remained functional.

Yet, for all we did well, the experience of the pandemic has shown many ways we could strengthen local, regional and national resilience.

At times, it has been challenging to manage communications when translating national messages for the people and businesses we serve at a local level, with different lines running on different platforms in different places.

The pandemic has also exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that still exist in our society and the disproportionate impact of COVID on black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals and families. Resilience is therefore about how our communities can, together, respond to uncertainty, and how we make sure that no groups are left behind as we prioritise how we protect, prevent and prepare for the worst.

Using community leaders and diverse role models from across organisations, sectors and place to deliver the key messages in an emergency, including about the importance of being prepared (but not scared), can only help.

The experience of three national lockdowns in two years and several tiers of restrictions has underscored that we should bake resilience planning into our national and local infrastructure as integrally as we do budgets on major infrastructure projects such as HS2.We must start thinking about resilience as we do financial bottom lines.

What is the minimum tolerance needed to be ‘viable’ and how do we ensure that every organisation and community actor builds that into what they do and how they plan and operate? Without this, levelling up could come quickly crashing down the moment tragedy strikes our communities.

Although the current Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) is broadly effective, there remains an assumption that we are still dealing largely with one-off incidents, rather than the long-haul management of critical episodes. But this just doesn’t reflect reality. We are now considering the impacts that the war in Ukraine may have on our local places, such as increased cyber security threats and the potential arrival of a large number of refugees, alongside the current cost of living crisis.

Recently, we were dealing with simultaneous and significant scale events like storm damage and flooding, running alongside a pandemic with the resultant impact on supply chains, movement of goods and people, costs of petrol and so on.

The CCA must pivot its focus to supporting the resilience of the national and local system in a period of prolonged change. Regional and local resilience forums need to be given the teeth and resources to properly plan, prepare and provide for when the worst hits while acknowledging these events may happen simultaneously and over a protracted period.

In particular, there should be a minimum level of Government funding for local authorities to undertake their emergency planning and ensure they have the skills and resources they need to respond effectively.

As things stand, how much a council chooses to invest in its resilience is dependent on how important local leaders (members and/or officers) determine this to be.

There is real value in learning from each other. The rollout of the national vaccine programme included putting together a databank of shared intelligence and learning so that places could mitigate risk and share best practice in how to effectively deliver in the face of a prolonged crisis. This could be expanded into a broader voluntary peer review process where local resilience forums from different regions could support and challenge each other as a positive learning experience to help better prepare for the next virus, flood, cyber attack or bomb.

‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ is the mantra in emergency planning circles. The frequency and nature of the threats we face continues to change but with a strengthened, well resourced, community-oriented national resilience framework we can do much better than hope.

Kersten England is Solace’s policy spokesperson for civil and community resilience and chief executive of Bradford City Council

@kersten_england

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Communications Emergency planning inequality Poverty Coronavirus
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