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.


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.