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Peter John: How Southwark responded to terrorism

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As I stood with staff in our London Bridge offices on the morning of 23 May to remember the victims of the Manchester attack with a minute’s silence, little did I know that we would soon be in the midst of our own worst nightmare.

Aside from the tragic and unnecessary loss of eight lives, and 48 people physically injured, there is something about an incident like the London Bridge terror attack happening in your own borough; near your own home; at places you know, visit and love and to people you know and love, which makes it so different to an incident you observe from afar. Until 3 June 2017, terrorism was something which happened elsewhere.

Any critical incident faced by a council will require a robust set of actions and responses but every critical incident is different and so the response must not be too rigid. Established procedures were followed and on the Sunday we set up a rest centre for people affected by the cordon but to my knowledge it only had two visitors. This was in contrast to an earlier emergency when we had found an unexploded WW2 bomb in Bermondsey and a rest centre was a critical support for hundreds of residents.

The Metropolitan Police were the lead agency in responding to the attack, and whilst they were absolutely brilliant it sometimes meant that as the local authority we sometimes had no special knowledge – even if the media expected us to.

There was also sometimes an issue as decisions about the nature and extent of the cordon were not communicated from SO15, the Met’s specialist operations branch, to those frontline police officers around the perimeter of the cordon meaning residents were left uncertain about what they could do and where they could go. Councillors and council officers played key roles in getting clarity for residents.

Sometimes it’s the little things that can take time in the immediate aftermath.

Did we have books of condolence and where would they be placed? Who would organise a vigil? One minute we were gearing up for a visit from the prime minister, the next plans had changed.

Could a single location for floral tributes be established? People began laying flowers at a number of points around the cordon. After a surprising amount of debate a location was agreed by the council, Greater London Authority and police – but was ignored by the public who decided that the corner of London Bridge was the right place – and that is where the flowers remained for weeks until they were removed in a sensitive ceremony.

Of course, many of the challenges were around the area that was cordoned off, and a crime scene. Firstly, there were many people living inside the cordon including a sheltered housing unit right next to Borough Market. If they left the cordon they often could not get back in, and the council needed to ensure we continued to look after vulnerable residents – simple things like being able to collect a prescription.

And of course there was a huge impact on the market itself which ultimately remained closed for 10 days. I discovered that the market stores tons of fresh produce, including seafood and cheeses, underground. Once the cordon was lifted, much of it had perished and had to be disposed of.

We had a street cleaning team on standby for when the cordon was lifted – and they did a magnificent job late on the Tuesday night – even after being threatened with arrest and the impounding of their truck by an over-zealous police commander who hadn’t got the message that the cordon was about to be reduced.

I attended the reopening of Borough Market on 14 June when the bell was rung to signal the start of business in an age old tradition. It was a hugely moving moment, a step forward, a ‘return to normal’, but of course, nothing is normal after an attack like this. It is the longer term impacts and scars we must always remember, and our humanitarian assistance group has been a huge support in providing counselling and support for those affected. Charities like the British Red Cross have done all we’ve asked of them, and more.

As we look to the future we will continue to work with Borough Market, the mayor of London, traders and the businesses that surround it to ensure that they have the funding to continue trading and their uninsured losses are covered as much as possible. The mayor has been generous in his financial support, and as a council we swiftly decided to give all businesses within the cordon one month’s business rate relief. Those who have suffered particular financial hardship can apply for a longer period.

We will work with all those affected to establish a permanent memorial to those who were killed, and we will make sure that our residents who were impacted by the attack continue to have the support they need.

At times of crisis the role of a chief executive is – or should be – clear, leading the emergency response and coordinating the recovery and return to business as usual. I cannot fault my chief executive Eleanor Kelly, and her team, in their excellent and sensitive response to this tragedy.

But as the council leader what role do you have? Well to my mind it’s simply to try and reflect the views of my community and to provide reassurance and leadership through public statements, media appearances, and social media.

The professionalism of staff, and the fantastic way communities pull together in the face of adversity, gives me confidence that we can cope. It’s true you see the worst of humanity – but you also see the best. And the best of local government – we are the often unheralded emergency service.

Peter John (Lab), leader, Southwark LBC

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