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Baker and Tuddenham: Grenfell provides three lessons for leaders

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The first anniversaries of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge attack make this a time of sober reflection for local government.

First and foremost, we remember the victims: those who lost their lives as well as those whose lives are forever touched by these tragedies. As leaders, we also hold a mirror up to ourselves to reflect on the lessons we have learned and will continue to learn.

The number and breadth of major incidents we have faced over the past year have led us to consider the varied nature of the threats our communities face. The shape of future risk will continue to change, especially as an increasingly digital world exposes us to immobilising impact of cyber attack. There are many lessons and challenges that have been identified following recent events that we are building into our civil resilience strategies locally, but we wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the key lessons for those in leadership roles. Despite the element of unknown that is difficult to foresee, the past year has taught us that three core factors always need to be part of how we respond when our communities face a crisis.

Lead

Communities rightly expect their local council to be visible, provide leadership and act with pace when faced with an emergency. We know and understand the critical role we play from first initial response through to the recovery stage, recognising that the boundaries between the two can be blurred when it comes to supporting communities. We need to be there throughout all stages, well after our blue light partners’ work is done.

We have been working with central government and partners to ensure that both elected members and officers understand the importance of leading with clarity and purpose in times of crisis and beyond. As leaders, we need to lead the response in the moment, and enable the long-term recovery of communities and places. Emergencies can damage buildings, decimate infrastructure and tear through the very heart of a community. We must lead in physical rebuilding, but we also need to help put our communities back together. This requires leaders who are empathetic, authentic, and, above all, human.

Be self-aware

At the core of effective leadership is knowing when you need to ask for help, and recognising that need quickly. In the aftermath of Grenfell, we saw an organisation that appeared overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy. With a public inquiry ongoing, it is not for us to comment on the response to that specific incident but we all need to reflect on our own preparedness. We know that local government hasn’t always had the mechanisms to enact mutual aid in the way other emergency services have. As the fourth emergency service, and the one that is in it for the long haul more than any other, an effective process is imperative.

Our observations of responses to critical incidents have provoked a great deal of thought amongst Solace members about our readiness to respond and how we can best support each other when the unthinkable occurs. Make no mistake about it, we have seen some truly superb examples of peer to peer support throughout the past year.

Solace is now working with central government to look at mutual aid arrangements around the country so that we can identify any gaps and help to build up a strong network of support that is ready to be called upon when needed.

Work with the grain of place

Effective leaders do not work in isolation and this is even more true in the event of an emergency. Our partners in the blue light services have been stalwart throughout the past year. In local government, we are the community, democratically accountable and drawn from the places we serve. However, the shift in the past 20 years in how services are provided how and by whom has in some cases risked placing us in fewer locations, more detached from those we serve. Places are the starting point for our sense of belonging and we need to work with the grain of the places we serve, avoiding a retreat from the street that can occur, even if inadvertently.

By working alongside other organisations rooted in our places with a genuine parity of esteem, we are more likely to be effective leaders. Both the Manchester and Grenfell incidents highlighted the invaluable role the voluntary sector can play in times of emergency. Whilst we work on a daily basis with the voluntary sector and faith communities, we need to do more to embed these anchor organisations in our places into our emergency planning response, as recent reports by the Red Cross and Muslim Aid highlight.

Conclusion

Whilst we reflect on the lives lost almost a year ago, we know that there is no room for complacency as a sector. We are learning the lessons from incidents we have witnessed in recent years, to build the capability and resilience we need to lead through incredibly difficult situations despite ever reducing resources and increased demands upon us. As leaders of our communities, we understand our people in a way that other public services cannot. The types of emergencies we face will differ across our places, but our priority as councils will remain the same: to provide genuine leadership and ensure that we can be relied upon in times of trouble.

Stephen Baker, civil reslience spokesperson, and Robin Tuddenham, deputy civil resilience spokesperson, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers

 

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