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.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.