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Despite Javid's harsh words, councils have risen to severe challenges

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Commentary on the LGA’s debate about councils’ response to crises

On the final day of the LGA Conference 2017, delegates’ anger at the communities secretaries’ keynote speech two days earlier had barely diminished, such was strength of feeling over his ferocious attack on councils in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

In his closing remarks this afternoon LGA chair Lord Porter ignored the notes prepared for him to describe some of Sajid Javid’s comments as “ill-judged”. Many delegates may have thought Lord Porter was being too kind - the wry smile on his face suggested he did too.

A plenary session this morning on leading communities through crisis provided an opportunity for delegates to hear accounts of how councils in reality have played a critical and effective role in supporting people at times of trauma.

After describing Mr Javid’s speech “in Yes Minister terms” as “brave”, Islington LBC leader Richard Watts (Lab) detailed his council’s response to the attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque last month.

Cllr Watts highlighted the importance of reacting immediately to provide visible leadership at the scene. “Get there as quickly as possible to understand what is going on and how well people are responding,” he advised.

But he said the most important thing that he contributed personally was to persuade police to use the term “terrorism” in their first statement after the attack.

Due to significant time invested in building relationships with the community, Cllr Watts knew that there was a widespread feeling among Muslims in the borough that police are quick to use the word terrorism when Muslims attack non-Muslims, but not when the roles were reversed.

“Getting officialdom to use the word terrorism as soon as possible was the single most important thing we could do to ensure community cohesion,” he said.

Mr Watts also recognised the importance of the council providing as much information as possible to reassure residents in the wake of the event, particularly on social media, and counter potentially damaging rumour and misinformation.

As emergency services can often be slow to provide details in the immediate aftermath of a major incident, Cllr Watts stressed the importance filling “the void” with a “voice of caution and reason”.

Following the London Bridge terrorist attack last month, Southwark LBC leader Peter John (Lab) told delegates that “it really came home to me how the world of local government is a family and knowing Southwark had the support of that family truly helped”.

Cllr John also highlighted problems caused by an initial lack of information sharing by police, which hindered efforts to provide community assurance and support.

For example, he said a resident with dementia in supported housing next to Borough Market did not eat properly for two days because her meals on wheels could not be delivered.

Cllr John also said some of the smallest things had created the biggest problems.

Citing the example of deciding where to place the book of condolence, he said: “The prime minister wanted to sign a book of condolence but she didn’t want to sign it in Southwark council offices. I think they were deemed insufficiently photogenic.”

Deputy leader of Manchester City Council Sue Murphy (Lab) provided a moving account of the council’s response to the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena.

In the aftermath, she said some council staff had to be instructed to go home because they had not slept for 48 hours.

Describing the vigil organised by the council on the evening following the attack, which was attended by thousands of people from all communities, Cllr Murphy said there was “total unity and utter defiance”.

She added: “There was somebody else on the stage with us that day. Alongside faith and community leaders, emergency services and council leadership was Sajid Javid. He saw leadership that day from local government, he certainly didn’t see a crisis of confidence.”

Her words, and examples given during the session, provided strong evidence that despite failings in Kensington & Chelsea – and the harsh words of the communities secretary - local government has demonstrated an ability to lead and provide effective support communities in traumatic and unpredictable circumstances.



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