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Westminster leader: Councils 'vital' in terrorism aftermath

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The leader of Westminster City Council Nickie Aiken (Con) has spoken to LGC of the “vital role” local authorities play in the aftermath of a terrorist incident following her experience of being involved in the Westminster attack two months ago.

Last night an explosion at the Manchester Arena just after 10.30pm killed 22 people and injured 59 others. Police believe the attacker, who died at the scene, detonated an improvised explosive device. A 23-year-old man has since been arrested in connection with the incident.

In March this year five people were killed and more than 50 people were injured in a terrorist attack in Westminster. At the time it was the seventh terrorist incident in the UK since the 7/7 bombings in July 2005.

Westminster City Council is part of the London Resilience Partnership which brings together more than 170 organisations which each have specific responsibilities for preparing for and responding to emergencies. The council’s chief executive Charlie Parker sits on the chief executive steering group of the partnership.

In the immediate aftermath of the Westminster attack the city council and its workforce was responsible for ensuring the roads remained clear, liaising with schools, social workers, and meals on wheels services, and scrubbing the streets clean. The council also had a responsibility for providing morgue services during such incidents.

Nickie Aiken

Nickie Aiken

Westminster City Council leader Nickie Aiken (Con)

Speaking to LGC Cllr Aiken, who emerged from the underground moments after the Westminster attack had taken place, said: “We have trained for this. I saw first-hand that within 30 minutes of the Westminster attack our emergency rescue operations team were in place and [the plans we had worked on] were working. It went like clockwork.

“From what I understand and from what I’ve heard about what happened in Manchester last night you have to take your hat off to the local authorities and emergency services, and everyone else like the taxis and hotels – everybody just came together and you can’t ask for more.”

She added: “[Councils] have got a vital role because we are closest to our neighbourhoods, residents and businesses. We have a day-to-day relationship with them. When things like this happen they do look to us.

“We are there from an operational and practical level, but also from a community and humane level.

“We have got a vital role to play and that’s why we practice for this and have regular emergency planning not only in our own local authorities but London-wide.”

In her capacity as leader Cllr Aiken conducted numerous media interviews in the 24 hours after the attack.

“I did that to provide reassurances and to send a message that this will not divide us; this makes us stronger,” she said.

In addition she contacted all of the relevant faith groups and community groups to “bring everybody together”, while she also wrote letters of condolence to the victim’s families.

“That was probably the hardest thing I have ever done,” she said.

Cllr Aiken said what had happened “really hit home” when she sat with the victim’s families at the ‘service of hope’ at Westminster Abbey the following week.

“[Manchester City Council leader] Sir Richard Leese and [Greater Manchester mayor] Andy Burnham will be talking to the victim’s families and visiting people in hospital,” she said. “They are family people – it will come home to them that this is so shocking.

“That’s what struck me. We are civic leaders and have a role to play but then it hits you from a human point of view.”

A vigil is due to take place at 6pm in Manchester tonight.

Cllr Aiken said: “That will be so emotional. I was with the mayor of London for the one we had in Trafalgar Square.

“The officers and politicians in Manchester will be in shock but it’s getting the strength to make sure Manchester remains the wonderful, diverse and fantastic city it is and not allowing this to change the way we live our lives. That’s the best way to remember those who were murdered last night – to carry on with the way we live.”

Cllr Aiken said she was seeking discussions with London mayor Sadiq Khan (Lab) and London Councils about how councils can improve the way they gather intelligence from their communities and act as a place people can report concerns to if they do not want to go directly to the police.

Following attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016, Cllr Aiken set up a community cohesion commission in Westminster, then in her capacity as cabinet member for public protection.

The publication of the commission’s findings have been delayed due to the general election but Cllr Aiken said: “One of the biggest findings to come out of that was that the main divisions are not between ethnic lines, it’s between the rich and the poor… That’s been a learning curve for me. It’s not about ethnicity, it’s socio-economic and that’s what we’ve got to address.”

A My Westminster day which Cllr Aiken said will celebrate “what makes us so different but also what unites us” is to be held on 18 June.

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