Today, Wednesday 1st August, Roberta gave the opening speech at the University of Durham's 'Breaking the Mould' conference, which over the course of three days will discuss whether it is time to change the way in which aid is delivered after humanitarian crisis and disaster.
Roberta spoke about the role of local government in disaster risk reduction, specificlally focusing on local authorities in the UK. She also welcomed Baroness Amos, the head of the United Nations office for emergency relief, to the conference.
Breaking the Mould Conference
I am delighted to be speaking here at the Breaking the Mould Conference. It is always such a privilege to have Durham University, a centre of academic excellence, here in my constituency and I would like to welcome all the speakers and guests who have travelled from right across the world to be here today. I hope you have a wonderful time in our historic little city and that you get chance to explore the area in between talks such as these! I would also like to give Baroness Amos a warm welcome Durham.
I would also like to give my thanks to Professor Dominelli, who has brought everyone together in Durham today. Professor Dominelli plays a fantastic role in the community and this conference is just one example of her many contributions.
As well as being the Member of Parliament for the City of Durham, I am also the Shadow Minister in the Communities and Local Government team. I am going to be giving a short talk about the role of local government can play in disaster risk planning and dealing with emergencies when they arise. I will concentrate on the UK situation but will frame this within a wider context of United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) policies and the pursuit of more community based disaster reduction methods.
In the UK we changed the legislation in 2004. The Civil Contingencies Act makes planning for disaster management, disaster management and risk reduction more locally focused. Although, obviously local government contributes to a framework that is set nationally and internationally. For example, local government has often taken guidance from COBRA, a special civil contingencies group which is convened by the Prime Minister as necessary.
The changes introduced in the Act very much followed the guidance from the UN, which as we know stressed four key roles for local government to consider in terms of its disaster risk reduction. These are:
•1. To play a central role in coordinating and sustaining a multi-level, multi-stakeholder platform to promote disaster risk reduction in the region or for a specific hazard
•2. To effectively engage local communities and citizens with disaster risk reduction activities and link their concerns with government priorities
•3. To strengthen their own institutional capacities and implement practical disaster risk reduction actions by themselves
•4. To devise and implement innovative tools and techniques for disaster risk reduction, which can be replicated elsewhere or scaled up nationwide. Because of its smaller scale and flexibility, local government is considered to be better positioned than a national government to develop and experiment with various new tools and techniques, applying them to unique settings and policy priorities
These roles give local authorities a central task to play, but also adds to their responsibilities.
Bearing in mind the UN's best practice approach, the following framework was then adopted in the UK.
As stated earlier, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 provides the framework for disaster risk reduction in the UK. It outlines the legal responsibilities placed on local authorities to plan for and react to disasters should they occur.
The Government's aim is to reduce the risk from emergencies so that people can go about their business freely and with confidence.
The framework is applicable to any disaster or strategy, from central government right down to community organisations, and we think that's a really important feature of the UK approach.
The previous Acts, the Civil Defence Act 1948 and the Civil Defence Act (Northern Ireland) 1950 defined ‘disaster' narrowly and could not cope with the natural disasters of the mass flooding in 2000 and the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001.
In section 1 the Act defines an ‘emergency' widely, as being an event or situation which threatens human welfare or the environment. Human welfare can be threatened by damage to property or disruption of certain essential services, such as health and transport.
The Act establishes the creation of a Local Resilience Forum to consider whether an emergency/ disaster is taking place in a specific area (Police Force boundary) and where it has to carry out and publish a risk assessments.
Helpfully, the guidance notes state that "This Community Risk Register is the first step in the emergency planning process; it ensures that the plans that are developed are proportionate to the risk." This again emphasises that local Forums are best trusted with the evaluation of a situation in their area, and it is deemed most appropriate that they would respond to it.
Local authorities are a ‘category 1 responder'- They have the responsibility for community development and sustainable disaster risk reduction. This is a statutory duty, unlike in other countries, enshrining requirements into law.
Part 1 of the Act places a legal obligation upon emergency services and local authorities to assess the risk of, plan, and exercise for emergencies, as well as undertaking Business continuity Management. Category 1 Responders are also responsible for warning and informing the public in relation to emergencies. Finally, local authorities are required to provide business continuity advice to local businesses.
Merton Council, in London, has a very detailed Emergency Plan, in line with its duty under the Act. It states its aim as being to provide appropriate arrangements and procedures so that Council Officers can deal with an emergency if one occurs. Their plan has outlined a number of potential ‘rising tide' events, as being those which take a period of time to take effect such as pandemics or floods, and has created detailed plans which can be carried out when the disaster occurs.
Similar plans have been made by the majority of Councils across the UK. In York there is an ‘Emergency Planning College', which delivers Cabinet Office approved training to the staff of Councils right across the country, to enable them to deal with an emergency efficiently and safely should one arise in their area. This College clearly shows that Councils are keen to prepare for disasters, and ensure that their staff are trained and prepared to react in the best possible way.
The results of Councils planning for disaster and preparing disaster risk reduction plans can be seen in case studies from 2009, where two Councils carried out their plans to react to severe flooding in their area.
Cumbria County Council had to react to such floods, and their response of the emergency services to the Cumbrian floods has been universally praised for its effectiveness and efficiency.
One of the reasons why Cumbria responded so effectively was because of the significant effort by public bodies that has gone into building community resilience across the county. According to research conducted just prior to the floods, the county council's publicity campaign to help raise levels of preparedness has seen the proportion of people who feel informed about what to do in the event of an emergency rise from 22% to 38% in less than a year. This shows that part of preparing for a disaster includes educating local people and helping them to prepare too.
Another example of reactions to those same floods in 2009 came from Allerdale Borough Council. In Allerdale, around 1,400 calls from local people to the Council were answered in four days.
There were also a number of extraordinary actions taken by the Council.
Legal and planning issues were resolved within 24 hours to build a train station on Allerdale Borough Council's land to link communities in north Workington to the rest of the town and Council land was also used for a temporary footbridge over the River Derwent, built within 10 days by the army.
These are good examples, but there's still much concern that too much of making the UK's response to dealing with emergencies and planning for this relies on local authorities and that more could be done to make the approach more community focused and engaged. Work is continuing on this, but it varies across areas. Some other issues have emerged such as:
•1) Slowness of response
•2) Lack of information
•3) Loss of collective memory as emergencies don't happen very often and there is not necessarily community engagement
•4) The ‘salt cell' example, where provisions taken from local government to meet national requirements
Some of these difficulties are also experienced across the globe but there are others as well which sometimes local governments particularly face in an international context.
Disaster risk reduction initiatives are a long term process. They require stability in order to allow for planning. This needs to be political stability and economic stability. Local government within some countries find the lack of stability prevents them.
The need to move from a ‘disaster response' mode to a ‘risk reduction' mode is absolutely crucial. But with limited funds and sometimes a lack of appropriate governance structure, some countries will lack the practical means to create and carry out a risk reduction plan. Information needs to be made available to convince governments that disaster risk management is not an expense but an investment. Strong infrastructure and effective planning that includes all levels of the community can reduce the cost of ultimately dealing with a disaster.
We need shared best practice to enable disaster risk planning to be shared across the country. The European Union has recognised the benefit of this, and published an ‘Implementation Plan for the EU Strategy for Supporting Disaster Risk Reduction in Developing Countries' in 2011.
Disaster risk is a vital but often overlooked part of international development. As this speech has repeated throughout, local government is widely considered the best level of governance to deal with natural disasters and emergencies, as it does through the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 in the UK within a national and international framework.