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How would it feel to be in charge of all local government services in London if a catastrophic incident took place?...
How would it feel to be in charge of all local government services in London if a catastrophic incident took place?

London boroughs have signed up to a rota system in which 11 of the 33 London chief executives take this responsibility in two-week shifts (LGC, 4 June). The team of 11 are referred to as 'local authority golds'.

Harrow LBC chief executive Joyce Markham, who is one of the 11, says: 'You become very aware of everything that's happening, keeping at the front of your mind what you have to do.'

When she spoke to LGC, Ms Markham was on duty. Her shift had started at midnight on 27 May and was set to finish at midnight on 9 June.

Three hours into her first day, radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza was arrested at the Finsbury Park mosque. 'You wonder, when you hear news like that, whether there are going to be any implications,' says Ms Markham.

Although there has been no formal discussion of lifestyle issues, when Ms Markham is on duty she gives up alcohol and does not travel outside London.

She says: 'I have just taken the stance that I'm on call 24/7 and might have to drive somewhere, so therefore I have not been drinking. So I'm looking forward to my first gin and tonic on 10 June. And I've made sure that I'm around and in London. You have to adopt sensible personal rules because it is a big responsibility and you have to discharge it effectively.'

Corporation of London chief executive Chris Duffield, who is also on the gold rota, says: 'As someone who might have to bear some responsibility during a terrorist attack on London, I find it reassuring to know there are excellent people who have devoted thousands of hours of planning to deal with this contingency.'

Another of the 11, Westminster City Council chief executive Peter Rogers, admits that the possibility of a catastrophic incident may be more on the agenda for himself and Mr Duffield because of their central location. But he is adamant that all 33 chief executives in London should take on the role - potential targets could be anywhere from Heathrow Airport to the Thames Barrier.

He says: 'For some of the other [chief executives], it may not feature as high on their radar. But that's exactly why I think they need to be involved. A London problem will not be resolved on a borough basis, it will be resolved on a London basis.'

But he adds: 'It's naïve to believe there can always be 33 on the rota. If a new chief executive is appointed, then there may be a case for a period of grace.'

Things have improved, though, says Mr Rogers: 'There were only five of us on the rota last year.'

Martin Pilgrim, chief executive of the Association of London Government, would also like to see more chief executives sign up to the rota but agrees that there are practical issues to consider. He says: 'To be on the gold rota at the moment, you have to be within two hours of central London seven days a week, 24 hours a day [when on duty]. Not every chief executive can meet that basic criteria.'

But he emphasises that those who are not on the rota cannot sit back. 'If there was a catastrophic incident then all of London local government would have a role to play, including those chief executives who are not part of the gold rota.'

And the work goes beyond the role of top officials. Mr Pilgrim says: 'This is a commitment by London local government as a whole, not just chief executives personally.'

Councils have a twofold importance, he adds. For a start, they are a huge public resource in London: 'We employ 350,000 staff and they might need to be diverted into doing other things. But also they are there as community representatives with knowledge of the community and how to deal with people in a civic-society way, which is not quite the role of the blue-light services.'

Emergency planners are also considering the role of councils in providing services and rounding up resources during the recovery management phase.

While London is leading the way on its civil defence plans, work is pressing ahead in the regions. Eight regio nal resilience teams were set up in April 2003 and are based in the government office in each area.

An ODPM spokesperson says the teams have a co-ordinating role: 'They take the lead on managing key relationships between responders.' There is also co-ordination between the regions if borders overlap.

The regional response is set to be facilitated by a nominated regional co-ordinator. The details of the post are in the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.

London is still ahead of the game with all 33 chief executives being briefed every six months by local government minister Nick Raynsford. And Mr Rogers says there are smaller 'LA gold' meetings 'as and when required' under Croydon LBC chief executive David Wechsler, who is chair of the Local Authority Subcommittee of the London Resilience Team.

Mr Rogers says: 'I think the problems of 11 September are making rapid progress in government, although some of it has been difficult. And I think there has been a significant change in the readiness of London to deal with these problems since 2001.'

He adds: 'The responsibility of dealing with this is a bigger scale but no different than the responsibility of dealing with a Victoria Climbié problem. Both of them give you stress and pressure in the job, it's just a different form of stress and pressure.'

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