Q: The list of crisis issues we currently face includes, but is not limited to: the prospect of energy blackouts this winter, severe economic pressures and the cost of living, food insecurity and civil unrest, the risks of war escalating beyond Ukraine’s borders, climate change including flooding risks, a new pandemic, and anti-microbial resistance. How well prepared are local councils and their communities for the ‘permacrisis’ they’re facing – ie how would you rate the state of local resilience currently? And are there any risks not on this list that are currently under the radar, but emerging fast?
Lucy Easthorpe: Councils, who are of course made up of people often on quite low wages, have been working tirelessly for three years now. There has literally been no let up. People have been on their on-call rosta relentlessly.
You don’t plan and respond to disasters in isolation, so issues with society and community have a huge impact on our work. The worsening cost of living leaves us with little room to ask people to start thinking about preparedness. And emergency planners are worrying about their own financial and emotional survival too.
There are so many risks to think about – everything from transport incidents to flooding. There is also a danger that people have no more capacity to think of other disease risks after Covid but emergency planners have to think about them all the time – avian flu, other influenzas, monkeypox, diphtheria as just some examples.
Many local councils have absorbed emergency planning functions into other roles and don’t give it enough weight. It’s easy to underestimate both the need for the plan and the planning.
What emergency planners tell me makes the real difference is keeping up the profile of this as a constant area of attention for the council executive team. What is also crucial is having clear routes of governance for emergency planning so it is clear how to brief and then effect urgent change. Emergency planners should be advising on planning and response so how they are positioned within the organisation is important.
Q: Which risks keep you awake at night above all others, and how can we best prepare for and mitigate these?
LE: I address this in When The Dust Settles – you cannot live in fear. You have to galvanise but you also have to live.
One of the things I love about emergency planning is you don’t just have to sit with all that anxiety – you get to do things about it and we form into what I call a ‘coherent narrative’, where you scope both the risk and what you can do about it.
You also can’t write resilience plans in isolation – there is not a fast track disaster option – what’s not there every day won’t be there in a major incident. Families can’t afford to lose a fridge full of food in a major incident.
We had detailed plans for looking after people in emergencies but the shocking aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017 shows how vulnerable they are to being ignored, overridden or planned to be unworkable. We rely heavily on the voluntary sector.
Q: How would you rate the quality of the UK’s local resilience forums (LRFs)? Is there an unacceptable degree of variance in quality/capacity and capability in different parts of the UK, or is the picture pretty consistent overall?
LE: I am often asked to bring ‘creative turbulence’ to emergency planning discussions and I regularly provide challenge to our LRFs. I think we are starting to see them strengthen particularly as new funding streams are made available to them.
Ideas of local interoperability are crucial in response but may actually be problematic in recovering after a disaster – that’s when different local agencies may need to hold each other to account.
There is also a huge postcode lottery and we see that all the time in smaller incidents. There is rivalry and also inadequate and inconsistent training. The picture is far from consistent.
Q: How does the UK compare with its international neighbours in terms of the strength of its local disaster preparedness and co-ordination and partnership between the centre and the local on disaster planning strategies? Are there specific countries the UK should be emulating?
LE: In the UK we see a lot of geographical disparity, and storms like Arwen highlighted some rural resilience, but I worry a lot about citizen preparedness more broadly. It requires resources and access. Central government decision-making has never seemed so far removed. Central government in emergencies is often so hungry for information but often that has a huge impact on local workload.
I have a research position in New Zealand and something I spend hours every week looking at is international comparisons and case studies that we can learn from.
When it comes to something like power cuts I do worry a lot that the public are still thinking there is much more help than there actually is. That’s a difference I see with other nations like Australia and USA where citizens know that readiness is thought about slightly differently.
Q: The Government’s consultation on a national resilience strategy closed in September 2021, but nothing appears to have happened since. What do you think about the delay to the strategy, and how worried are you about this?
LE: We continue to wait for the final strategy and it’s a worrying time – it’s a scaffold to our work and we are feeling its absence. I hear something is on its way and I just hope that it understands us and what we need.
The permacrisis means that planners go from response to response with little time to consolidate any learning, undertake necessary training, archive, audit and rest.
We also need permanent resourcing and to know we are believed in and sustained.
On a more positive note, many of the reviews of When The Dust Settles make reference to how ‘uplifiting’ it is and there are plenty of reasons to hold on to some hope. One area I think is particularly strong is the new group of emergency planners coming through. I also think that there is a camaraderie in the field like nothing I have known before, forged through adversity. And there is no greater privilege than seeing a community demonstrate its resolve after disaster – that is where I get my hope.
Lucy Easthope is a UK emergency planner and author of bestseller When The Dust Settles. She is a professor and co-founder of the After Disaster Network at the University of Durham, and research fellow at the Centre for Death and Society.
Her company Whatever Next delivers response and recovery training and incident advice and reviews.