The attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Islington were a terrible illustration of the ongoing terrorism risk we must remain vigilant to, while the fire at Grenfell Tower highlighted the importance of councils visibly responding to and leading their communities following a disaster. The Novichok incidents in south Wiltshire in 2018 also highlight that some risks can be extremely difficult to predict.
Based on the experiences and feedback of colleagues, the LGA has updated its guidance for councillors on civil emergencies. Intentionally, it focuses throughout on the themes of leadership and communication.
In an emergency, as with business as usual, councillors are not involved in the operational response led by officers but must play a leadership role that includes:
- political leadership – ensuring that their council is meeting its obligations under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, by preparing for and responding to emergencies
- civic leadership – giving a focal point for the local area during an emergency situation
- community leadership – helping to increase community resilience, and supporting communities’ emergency responses and the period of recovery.
- The political leadership of a council should ensure that councils are managerially equipped and resourced to plan for, respond to and recover from emergencies.
This will involve making significant policy and funding decisions to help plan for emergencies, and promoting joint working and mutual aid arrangements with other local authorities and agencies.
In a response situation, it will include supporting officers to respond to emergencies, enabling them to defend key decisions and helping to minimise reputational risk to the authority.
Political leaders may also be required to consider resourcing recommendations from the strategic or recovery coordination groups, or make representations to government for additional financial resources or other assistance. They must also ensure recovery functions are mainstreamed and that lessons learnt are addressed and shared more widely.
The emergencies that councils responded to in 2017 highlighted the critical significance of councils’ civic leadership as a key feature of an effective emergency response and recovery.
This is about giving a visible focal point for the local area during an emergency, offering information, support, reassurance and comfort, and standing alongside representatives of different communities and organisations. Media and communications will be a critical enabler of the council’s civic leadership role.
Visible and empathetic community leadership by ward councillors at a very local level is hugely important. Community leadership cuts across preparedness, response and recovery; councillors need to understand their communities, local vulnerabilities, community networks, assets and businesses to help develop their resilience, and then use this information and capacity to inform and support an emergency response if it becomes necessary.
The advent of social media has increased opportunities for effective communication with local residents, but can also create challenges for councils and councillors. Councillors should bear in mind general guidance on using social media, work closely with their communications teams and avoid pitfalls such as providing unverified information.
Community leadership will also be crucial as communities rebuild and move through periods of recovery, when ward councillors can act both as the voice of the community within the council, and vice versa.