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After eight years of cost-cutting, service-shutting, and general doom and gloom under the dark cloud of austerity it often feels like the standards local government sets itself, and regularly meets, easily get forgotten or glossed over.
It is a testing time in the sector’s history, but certain councils have been through more than most since the start of 2017.
Terror attacks in London directly impacted on Westminster City Council and Southwark LBC, with both gaining respect for the parts they played in the response to the respective atrocities.
While Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s initial response in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster left much to be desired, LGC reported last week that the second report of the borough’s independent taskforce found the council had made a “considerable effort” to start turning things around.
Today the report into the emergency response to the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May 2017, which resulted in 22 people including many children losing their lives, provided detailed insight into the way authorities handled the situation.
It is a document that does not paint Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service in the best light. But contained in the 226-page report were some highly encouraging words for the way Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) stepped up in extremely difficult circumstances in the immediate hours and days after the attack.
“The civic response of the city-region was by any measure exceptional and demonstrated the enormous strength of the civic leadership and partnership in Greater Manchester,” the report said.
There was specific praise for the “highly effective” leadership shown by Manchester City Council chief executive Joanne Roney, as well as the authority’s leader Sir Richard Leese, deputy leader Sue Murphy, and lord mayor Eddy Newman (all Lab). Warm words were also directed Mr Burnham’s way.
And this happened, let’s not forget, only a matter of weeks after both Ms Roney and Mr Burnham had taken up their respective new roles.
Writing for LGC in July last year, Ms Roney said: “I think we can be proud of how Manchester rose, and continues to rise, to the challenge” of responding to the attack. Based on this report, she was right to be proud.
One of the most striking aspects of the review led by former civil service chief Lord Kerslake (Crossbench) was how an investment made by the council over a number of years had paid off. The investment was not just money but time – something that can be at as much of a premium as hard cash when resources are so limited.
There had, however, been an ongoing investment in developing relations with community and faith groups which in turn had built trust in the relevant authorities and those involved with overseeing the aftermath.
It was also “notable”, the report said, that a response to a major exercise at the Trafford Centre had taken place “just months before the attack happened” which in turn meant key players knew exactly what they needed to do when the deadliest attack in the UK since the London 7/7 bombings in 2005 took place.
In December, exclusive LGC research revealed that council budgets for emergency planning had reduced, on average, by 29% since 2010 which led Tony Thompson, chair of the Emergency Planning Society, to say he was “very concerned” about councils’ abilities to respond to emergencies and unexpected incidents.
“Around the country, some councils will be on a wing and a prayer and will be hoping [an emergency] doesn’t hit them,” said Mr Thompson.
However, LGC also reported at the time that 2017-18 was the first financial year to buck a downward trend, although the 10% increase in emergency planning budgets on the previous year was largely driven by London boroughs.
But Manchester City Council too was among those to increase its emergency planning budget for 2017-18 – by £187,000 to £393,000. In hindsight, what an investment that was.
Lord Kerslake’s review said “there was concern that funding pressures due to austerity experienced by the council and GMP [Greater Manchester Police] might lead to a deterioration in the relationships between communities and partner agencies”.
The report recommended “the benefits accrued by the long-term investment in local authority and police neighbourhood and community engagement teams should be preserved where possible by consistent partnership resourcing”.
Stephen Baker, spokesman for civil resilience and emergency planning for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, urged councils last year to explore the concept of “mutual aid” between different partners.
While individual budgets might be squeezed and stretched, the success of an area’s response to an emergency will ultimately come down to an investment of not just money but time in forward planning and building relations with key partners and the wider community – today’s detailed report on the response to the Manchester Arena bombing clearly illustrates that.
Once again, an oft-repeated phrase springs to mind: ‘What Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow’. Based on the evidence relating to this specific incident, there is good reason why other areas should at least try.
By David Paine, acting news editor