As a council chief executive there are many challenges you are eager to embrace.
There are others which you hope with all your heart you never have to face.
The aftermath of a terrorist atrocity falls firmly into the latter category. Yet that was the situation we were confronted with in Manchester as the full horror of the 22 May Manchester Arena attack, which claimed the lives of 22 people – many of them children – began to emerge.
It was, and remains an incredibly testing time. But as chief executive the ultimate measure of any incident is that we can collectively stand on the Town Hall steps and say, we did all we could and gave of our very best. It is, I believe, a challenge that the council and its public sector organisations (and indeed the city and its communities) rose to.
But at a time when there is critical scrutiny of the public sector response to other terrible incidents, I think we can be proud of how Manchester rose, and continues to rise, to the challenge.
At the LGA Conference on 5 July, I spoke alongside the chief executive of Westminster, sharing our practical advice with colleagues. In Manchester, we learned lessons from significant incidents in Europe and wider, especially where young people were affected. We will use this learning to help us continue with our recovery phase.
Crucially, it wasn’t just a case of how plans were enacted but how we tuned in and responded to the prevailing mood and circumstances, balancing the need to provide civic leadership and a sense of solidarity and calm with the background of an ongoing police incident with raids and arrests across the city. Some of the things we did within the first 12 hours of the incident established the ‘tone’ of our response.
Measures such as the family assistance and rest centre established at Manchester City Football Club’s Etihad Stadium and the establishment of a joint consequence hub with Greater Manchester Police, to monitor impact on a community level and provide reassurance were vital. The speed which we were able to pull in resources from other Greater Manchester authorities helped us instantly to manage communications.
But of equal importance, to the city as a whole, were the vigil on 23 May – less than 24 hours after the attack – which helped establish the city’s mood of communal defiance and love over hate, which was organised on the hoof.
Within hours we had established the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund to raise and oversee funds for those affected by the atrocity.
Also important was the sensitive management of the sea of flowers, soft toys and other tributes left by the public at St Ann’s Square, which became the focal point for a grieving city, and the events, both civically organised and grassroots-led, which underlined the city’s togetherness in the face of a terrorist’s attempt to sow division.
The decision to go ahead with the Great City Games and Great Manchester Run events, just days after the attack – supported by a police force already under strain – enabled further powerful symbols of a city refusing to stop.
From the start, significant resources were needed to handle the communication challenges. Within the first couple of days we had seen an 800% increase in clicks through to links posted on our social media accounts and a dramatic increase in the number of Twitter followers from 100,000 pre-incident to around 130,000 now. There were also more than 100 interview requests from the world’s media, who were camped outside the Town Hall in Albert Square.
By 31 May, the police had formally handed over the response phase to the local authority-led recovery phase. Manchester City Council are now leading a multi-agency recovery co-ordination group across six workstreams: welfare and health, community recovery, business and economic recovery, communications, finance and debrief and recovery.
Every disaster is different and has its own dynamic and of course, with the benefit of hindsight, there are things around the edges that we would have done differently.
We are under no illusions that the impact of the horrendous events of 22 May, or our multi-agency response, is over. It is only the end of the beginning. The city as a whole will continue to deal with the aftermath long after the headlines and media spotlight have moved on. Manchester City Council and our partners will continue to play a constructive leadership role and will share any of our lessons with colleagues elsewhere, although I hope you never need them.
Joanne Roney, chief executive, Manchester City Council