ENVIRONMENT

Restoring resilience

Councils need to own the leadership of the response to extreme weather events and should argue the case for their role to be recognised and properly resourced, says Dame Meg Hillier.

Local government has always been the final backstop in responding to extreme events in their area. Whether flooding, storms or the pandemic, local government is at the front line, delivering the vital real-time, on the ground support, as well as being the key co-ordinator of local resilience forums.

But with local government funding cut to the bone, their ability to deal with crisis is at a critical point and this is putting national resilience at risk.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has returned to the subject of government plans for risk and resilience. We have previously called for a government chief risk officer – which Whitehall opposes.

At a local government level, the section 151 officer could play this role – assessing and anticipating risk at strategic level with the well-worn Gold lead dealing with any crisis in real time.

Our most recent examination of risk and resilience focused on extreme weather events. With the impact of climate change these are becoming more frequent – whether it be heat, storms or flooding – the once in 100-year events are taking place more frequently.

And the consequences for people, communities and property are severe.

In 2023 Storm Babet led to at least seven deaths and over 2000 homes were damaged. The areas affected by the floods it caused were in many cases different to those which had previously experienced flooding, and so were less prepared.

Babet exposed the greater clarity needed about the respective roles of the Environment Agency and local resilience forums during such a crisis, underlining the need for the Government to be clear on the different roles society and government should play.

This made it particularly challenging for communities dealing with this kind of event for the first time. The Government recognises that dealing with future storms requires a ‘whole of society' approach across both central and local government, the devolved administrations, private and voluntary sectors, and the public.

This lack of clarity extends to the public not knowing who is in charge of dealing with problems when risks crystallise.

In the case of surface water flooding, identified back in 2018 by the Environment Agency as a growing threat, our inquiry found it is not always clear who the citizen can contact when it happens where they live.

Responsibility for managing the Government's risk register sits within the Cabinet Office. Officials are clear about their role in dealing with a current or imminent emergency, but the PAC highlighted some serious gaps in long-term resilience and in being a clear system leader.

We called for the Government to set clear roles, responsibilities and guidance for how every sector, alongside central and local government, should prevent and prepare for national risks.

Absolutely key to this preparation are the community risk registers and supporting emergency plans already produced by local resilience forums.

Unfortunately, our inquiry has found central government does not check these plans to see if they are fit for purpose. Government has powers to examine and assure these plans do exist, but no funding is in place to implement them.

Communities therefore cannot be sure these vital responsibilities are being carried out properly. Indeed, there is a good chance they are not. Almost half of 42 English and Welsh community risk registers analysed by the National Audit Office had not been updated since the start of the pandemic.

With wider pressures on public spending, it comes as little surprise to see spending on resilience by local authorities falling. Allocating resources in this way can feel like guarding against a vanishingly unlikely outcome.

But just take water: in very recent years we have seen more flooding, contamination, water shortages, excessive rainfall, drought and problems from surface water.

These are big challenges that need to be mitigated and councils need to own the leadership of the response to this.

Government has a strategic role, but local government should argue for its role to be recognised and properly resourced.

And with hard political choices to make, planning for today too often trumps planning for risks that may never happen. But when they do, we are less well prepared as a nation than we should be.

Voluntary groups, in evidence to our inquiry, suggested that there should be maps of local third-sector provision, with full inventories of capabilities and skillsets for local responders to draw upon where required. We are urging Government to build its knowledge base in this area too.

We can also learn lessons from other countries. The Australian government, for example, issues statements of responsibility for government, business, the third sector, and individuals.

In the pandemic local government showed what it could do to support the communities it serves. It also had the resources to deliver Covid programmes. But with one in five councils at risk of issuing a section 114 notice and budgets squeezed, planning for the next crisis is proving ever harder.

Dame Meg Hillier MP is chair of the Public Accounts Committee and Labour & Co-operative MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch

X – @CommonsPAC

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