In times of emergency, Britain needs more than community spirit

Theresa May and some firemen after the Grenfell tragedy. Image: Getty.

First there were the terrorist attacks at the Manchester Arena and at London Bridge, in which 30 people were killed and hundreds injured. Then, scores died in the Grenfell Tower disaster after a blaze ripped through the building they called home.

The UK seems to have been hit with a series of horrific events in recent months. And yet despite the palpable sense of shock at these tragedies, the country has stood together with the victims and the families involved.

Local volunteers and organisations have played a leading role in recovery efforts and displayed remarkable skills of self-organisation. There have been people offering food, beds and accommodation, with volunteers and donations arriving not only from local areas but far beyond the boundaries of neighbourhoods or cities. And in all cases, help has also been provided by local businesses who have freely donated goods and services in the wake of disasters to support relief efforts.

But despite this surge of community spirit, in the case of Grenfell Tower, the failure of the local council and the UK government to respond appropriately or in a timely fashion has caused anger, offence and further suffering. Weeks after the fire, people were still waiting for information, to be rehoused, or to access emergency funds. Many of those made homeless by the blaze are moving between hotels or friends’ sofas every couple of days, with others left sleeping in their cars or even in local parks.

Community resilience

Questions have of course been raised about why in this case there has been such a lack of leadership and a failure to ensure the flow of vital information to survivors and the friends and families of the victims. But the answers are not yet clear.

Since the introduction of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), much of the responsibility for emergencies has been devolved to local authorities, NHS bodies and emergency services. All local councils have emergency plans for major incidents, though these tend to be focused more on short-term response than on the longer process of recovery.

But government has also increasingly focused on the role of citizens in emergencies. Recent policy has emphasised the need for the public to play a more active role in emergency situations and their aftermath. This has involved encouraging the development of “community resilience” – meaning the ability to “bounce back” and recover from adversity.

This has not involved giving any funding or support to local groups wanting to plan for potential hazards like flooding or major accidents, or to obtain useful equipment or train volunteers. Instead, the government’s role has been limited to sharing good practice and information.

But at the same time as communities are being urged to be more resilient, government spending cuts have meant that people are left more exposed to different hazards. They are also undermining emergency preparation and response.

For example, we have seen the postponement or abandonment of hundreds of flood defence projects, the closure of A&E departments and cuts to emergency services. As well as all this, there have been the kinds of compromises on safety that the Grenfell Tower tragedy has highlighted. The government is piling up problems for the future.

No support

What’s more, the ongoing programme of austerity has pushed the everyday lives of many people into chronic crisis, making them routinely reliant on emergency measures like food banks and payday loans.

Cuts to welfare spending and public services are having devastating effects, falling particularly heavily on disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.

These kinds of struggles with day-to-day survival undermine people’s ability to cope with disaster. After all, many of the resources and sources of support which people require in times of emergency are much the same as those they require day-to-day. But even for those more affluent communities, there is a limit to what can be achieved without external help and without the resources they need.

The ConversationThese recent events have underlined the vital role that local and central government must play during emergencies. Not only with the aim of getting back to “business as usual” but also to provide practical and emotional support to victims and their families in the following days, months and years. Which, sadly, seems to be something which has been all too slow to come about in the wake of the Grenfell fire.

Katy Wright is a lecturer at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?


You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.


Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?



Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.


I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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