Floods, Fires and lessons learnt - or not?


For the vast majority of people’s lives, Councils and the services we provide are invisible; the ‘average’ annual council tax of £1,600 largely funding niche areas of adult social care and looked after children / special needs. Bins, potholes, street cleansing and emergency planning are hardly in the limelight.

As per recent MJ comment 'It takes many good deeds to build up a good reputation and only one to lose that reputation'. I agree that we must avoid 'recriminations before the investigations' but it is clear that after Grenfell our civil resilience and response needs to be reappraised.

The subsequent comment on Grenfell from council leader Paget-Brown - 'This is a tragedy of enormous proportions and it has overwhelmed our normal capacity' - underlines why emergency planning is critical and working across geo-political boundaries must be better. I recall during the massive floods of 18 months ago the difficulty in gaining expertise and material as all our neighbours were hard hit – and it was Boxing Day. Across the winter of 2015 ten thousand homes and properties were flooded at a cost of £5bn to the public purse and insurers.

Cllr Paget-Brown commented: ‘Although individual council officers have worked so hard and delivered so much, it is clear that there has been a failing in our collective response.'

The extent to which Lakanal Fire in 2009 provided lessons that should have been learnt for Grenfell will play out in the inquiry. I am not able to focus on the events leading up to Grenfell and there is already public commentary on matters of regulation and investment regimes that will be picked over.

My focus here is rather the lack of response, which, as the MJ commentated, led 'people to march on the town hall to protest at the lack of council action [and] is a damning indictment of a failure to support those in need'. Regardless of a major event – natural or deliberate – it is the way in which society expects professionals to run towards danger and support the needy.

In this article I am seeking to make certain linkages that might genuinely provide early insight and direction. I draw on Cabinet Office’s Emergency Planning College (Easingwold) work of Pollock 2013 in highlighting the common causes of failures that transcended each and every major disaster of the last few decades.


Pollock concluded: 'The consistency with which the same or similar issues have been raised by each of the Inquiries is a cause for concern

  • Inadequate training; Ineffective communication;
  • Lack of leadership;
  • No system to ensure lessons were learnt and staff taught;
  • Failure to learn lessons / previous lessons learnt / report not acted upon.

Indeed the Emergency Planning College Feb 2017 paper concludes that little has changed.

'1. There is still a difficulty in learning from incidents and exercises.

2. The way training and exercising is usually delivered in the UK needs to be revised. This should involve shifting from large scale complex exercises to smaller shorter exercises, designed to specifically enhance participants’ skills, rather than knowledge.

3. Training and exercising should reflect the principles of deliberate practice, including timely feedback and personal development plans.'

It is unclear if 2015 Storms Desmond and Eva benefitted from the lessons learnt from the 2007 floods - there was though no direct loss of life. What was clear was that the response to flood hit families on Boxing Day 2015 proved more effective.

Cumbria CC has embedded expertise now that cover winter floods and the forest fires - even procuring Unimogs that provide ‘go anywhere’ response during such extremes; whilst North Yorkshire CC undertakes formal exercises with impressive frequency. What is clear is that resilience within the world’s fifth largest economy, and the premier world city, did not respond as it should have.

Let me be clear: it is inconceivable that every potential event can be prevented or mitigated. However the response to events can be prepared for and the role of formal exercises in that is critical.

The EPC / Pollock in 2013 concluded a typical response from Councils and Blue Light providers.

a. The default position from debriefs is to review and update plans.

b. This reflects previous research that found organisations tend to focus on the superficial aspects e.g. plans, policies rather than change practices.

c. There is also a lack of governance or rigour to ensure that lessons identified actually result in a change of practices and procedures, as well as plans.

After the 2007 Floods the subsequent Pitt Review demanded change but only half of these found their way onto Statute, only then to be diluted by means of stop / start funding to the Environment Agency. The cost of Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank were £5bn and it is clear that despite this cost many councils still fail to meet the either spirit of letter of the law; in so doing they fail their communities.

Calderdale - the UK's worst flooded borough of 2015 - saw six bridge collapses and 2,000 homes flooded and 1,000 devastated. As noted in Hansard, the floods were biblical but by good fortune no lives were lost. Indeed preparedness for known repeat events ensured Calderdale communities had investment and preparedness including social media, self-help and plenty of yellow tabards. I remain worried however that attention drifts and promised Government capital funding is diverted from one knee jerk to another such that Robin Tuddenham and the Calderdale community might have to wait another decade before flooding might be consigned to the history books.

Mother Nature remains the greatest 'clear and present' danger. Yes we must secure our built environment against deliberate attacks and I applaud the work of CPNI. But adding barriers to bridges to protect against one threat might ignore the threat of eroding bridge piers. It is clear that a review of fire protection, detection and response will now feature in the Grenfell Inquiry. However resilience must not be seen as the role of a small team in a corner office. A resilient council should actively seek to assess resilience from physical and cyber-attacks as much as from flood & fire.

Resilience and response must be a lens through which we consider all our work and generic training will serve us well across unforeseen and unexpected events; in airport management we were trained in understanding how design, construction materials and use of a location affects fire safety.

Equally, crisis management training provides a foundation upon which we might respond to contrasting events which for me included managing the impacts of Heathrow Express tunnel collapse; the Stansted hijack; or the tragedy of the Korean 747 plane crash. This is not about expensive courses but rather experiential learning, formal exercises and role play within and by our communities.

Council staff and supply chain partners are the fourth emergency service. We are drawn from our local communities and we serve them. The power of the yellow tabard – sadly missing from Grenfell – presents a locus to support people come fire or flood. Leadership must be visible and accountability must rest with chief executives and council leaders – discharged through formal training and multi-agency resilience.

Governance and accountability rests at the very top and whilst it is inconceivable any council would fail to have a glossy plan; it is rather the contingency planning and formal community exercises that must provide the gold standard.

Resilience and contingency planning does not come free. But it can be done well within a modest budget that each and every council can afford. As people marched on the Royal Borough’s Town Hall it should rightly send a shiver down each and every local politician and chief officer as to how the Cabinet Office / Pollock 2013 might become centre stage in re-defining how we help when our communities are in dire need.

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