Here is a summary of a roundtable held on 1st February 2024.

The meeting was convened to take forward discussion on societal preparedness that have been a core theme for the Commission since its inception.  Chairing the meeting, NPC Chair, Lord Toby Harris, explained that Government has committed in its Resilience Framework (UKGRF) to delivering a whole-of-society approach to national resilience.  Given that all crises are experienced locally, there is a clear need for preparedness to be at the local level.  Top-down models imposing a one-size-fits-all approach are rarely – if ever – fit for purpose; interventions must be locally adaptable and applicable to the context. They need to be continually iterated, flexible and agile in response to the evolving needs of local communities and in facilitating and enabling local action.

This is embodied in the concept of subsidiarity which is reliant on:

  1. trust and strong relationships between communities, civil authorities and the emergency services,
  2. sustainable relationship that are proactively built in advance of crises, emergencies and disasters, and based on accountable responsiveness
  3. social and cultural infrastructure in communities to enable societal resilience to function.

The paper Building Everyday Preparedness was prepared for NPC by Andy Hull, drawing both on his own research and on the series of reports and wider research on societal resilience commissioned by the NPC from Professor Duncan Shaw and Dr Judy Scully.  It raised important questions around what different groups and agencies could do to make it easier for local community organisations and community resilience to flourish.

Two discussants were invited to share their responses to the paper.

Kersten England (former Chief Executive, Bradford Council; Chair, The Young Foundation)

Agreeing with much that was in the paper, Kersten noted that civil society is a core component of community resilience and a thriving civil society is necessary to build resilient communities with deep, meaningful engagement based on mutualism and reciprocity. This infrastructure of trust-based relationships are needed for community mediation and the cognitive cohesion and synergies necessary for community security and societal peace. This must be built on a system- of- systems approach to continuous resilience activity.

The community must be recognised as ‘first enablers’ with demonstrable experience in delivering flexible, iterative, innovative, and adaptive responses and recovery capacity.  This has been proven repeatedly, with multiple examples noted in the reports prepared by Shaw and Scully for NPC.

The main issue is, however, that ‘whole of society resilience’, as espoused in the UKGRF (UK Government Resilience Framework), is based on the assumption of stability in local government and, by extension, stability in associated bodies, particularly with regard to funding. Resilience activities require a stable operating environment for the delivery of tactical objectives and strategic aims, and short-term agreements and contracts are detrimental to this.  Section 114 notices and issues arising from austerity measures continue to create fiscal turbulence and uncertainty – indeed, austerity has eroded the supporting infrastructure, and reserves are now depleted.

Local capacity needs to be built with a co-production approach – less informing and more consulting.  This approach allow space for communities to develop and lead their own solutions, rather than have to accept something imposed from outside.  There is a role for digital infrastructures to help here, but not enough attention is being paid to them.

Other areas, which could lead to a more supportive environment for community resilience include:

  • Strengthened Civil Contingencies Act arrangements, with new duties for RED, Cabinet Office, DLUHC and LRFs – this needs to be matched with an investment framework incorporating an intention to fund.
  • Proper representation of civil society in local structures. LRFs are not yet capable of delivering  ‘whole of society’ resilience, and they represent Category 1 and 2 agencies, rather than civil society itself.
  • Community Hubs, such as those formed during Covid-19 are an excellent example of trust-based participatory action and there is a need to curate and support the good practice that has been done.
  • Community level infrastructure could be adapted to act as resilience assets – for example by installing defibrillators or making adjustments so premises can be used as rest centres.
  • Experience in Bradford is that having faith group representation on Gold, Silver and Bronze response teams made a big difference to community cohesion during Covid-19, and is just one model of best practice that can be adopted more widely.
  • A national and institutional framework could be developed to support this work and provide options for tailoring to local context without re-inventing the wheel.
  • A National citizen service and curriculum for schools would support active citizen engagement.

Dr Kathy Oldham, Chief Resilience Officer, Greater Manchester

Kathy reminded the meeting that the Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was signed by the UK in 2015.  Espousing 13 guiding principles it is the roadmap for building resilience and delivering multi-hazard risk management. One of the principles is an ‘all of society’ approach to resilience and UK has taken this principle into the civil contingencies landscape.  However the focus within Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) tends to be on the statutory requirement to warn and inform the public. It is a one-way conversation, not a dialogue, with the main output being the local community risk register.  Communities are the priority, and they need to be positioned as such.

In Greater Manchester, the Fire Service is teaching the public about wildfires, the Police Service is providing crime reduction and anti-terrorism advice, and the Environment Agency is working on flood risk with local communities.  The pertinent question is whether the LRFs – whose duty is to enable effective crisis response – are the right locus for this activity, or whether coordination of capacity-building should happen through a separate but interdependent body.

There are good examples of initiatives across the country that could be mainstreamed to fill the resilience gap by scaling up with facilitated local adaptation, such as the Duke of Cornwall Awards (building resilience and preparedness in young people), the Resilient Cities Network and schools’ partnerships like Hazard Alley. However, all these things are happening in fragmented silos and many take single-hazard approaches. There is no synergy or policy coherence and the starting point is not local.

A shift in approach that takes a cradle-to-grave micro-macro approach to the public’s understanding of risk is needed. A good model in Amadora, Portugal sees preparedness education delivered through a centre where young people learn first about household risks, then road safety and house fires, before moving on to bigger risks such as forest fires, earthquakes and tsunamis.  It is a progressive understanding that builds awareness about prevention and response for a continuum of risks.

The concept of risk is often taken to refer to discrete shocks, such as Covid-19 or a terrorist attack.  However it also encompasses stresses – those things in society that amplify or exacerbate an emergency.  Stresses are mitigated by well-functioning public services, such as the NHS, financial safety nets or safety nets for those in crisis.  Community resilience depends on the fitness-for-purpose of those services, so attention needs to be paid to them.

Finally, there is significant value in getting warning systems right.  UNESCO is clear that, of all the risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures, early warning and early action are one of the best and most cost-effective methods for saving lives and reducing economic impacts of natural hazards.  Met Office and HAS now provide us with very good warnings about storms, extreme weather and infectious disease outbreaks, but there is work to do in understanding how these warnings are received and their effectiveness in driving the required response.

Innovation funding has produced some incredible projects and initiatives, however these stop once the funding period ends, ultimately undermining resilience-building initiatives, trust and goodwill. Significant research needs to be done into these programmes to determine their effectiveness and the extent to which they could (and should) be scaled up, adapted, and rolled out nationally. The learning and outcomes from projects need to be researched and shared.

Discussion  

A lively and wide-ranging discussion followed, with broad agreement that more should be done to enable community resilience to be built from the ground up.  Key areas of discussion included:

  • Community Hubs and the potential siting of them. Post Offices, churches and church halls are all places that could be used to offer many service – including digital inclusion, health, welfare and social meetings.  In making them the obvious place to go for assistance or information, they become a natural focal point during emergencies. Known, trusted places are likely to be accessed more naturally than LRFs, which often have no physical base.
  • Alongside physical hubs, there is a need to retain the engagement with community and faith groups that were consulted widely during the Covid-19 emergency. Consultations with such groups provided routes into communities that would otherwise be impossible and such links provide valuable social capital, but have been allowed to decline since the pandemic.  One route towards reversing this is to create a duty on local councils and statutory service providers to know where their local faith and community groups are and build relationships with them.  The stronger these networks become, the less support they need from central resources. Any national framework for community resilience, together with national schemes should be there to fill the gaps in local infrastructure – not to replace it.  Identification of those gaps should then lead to support in building local capability.
  • Building on trusted relationships of all kinds is critical – the guiding premise being to go to where people naturally look for guidance or support, including parent’s groups, local shops, schools, and health centres. Finding stories that resonate with the local community will help foster engagement around a common cause which naturally builds more resilient communities.  Looking for and taking natural opportunities to build resilience is cost-effective and more likely to be adopted into the local ecosystem.
  • On a practical note, partners and local communities could benefit by participating in exercises. Engaging schools, colleges, universities and businesses as part of the exercise would bring awareness of what is required, and foster relationships across the community. This would be particularly helpful considering that different emergencies require different responses (stay at home during a pandemic; evacuate during a flood).
  • Funding was raised as a major issue for several reasons. There has been a ‘hollowing out’ of services, leading to an increase in vulnerability at a time of increasing interconnected interdependency and systems complexity. There is potentially a strategic case for a return to a central grant allocation ringfenced for resilience and emergency planning and delivery.  Funding for LRFs is short-term because Treasury rules do not allow for longer timeframe commitments – a situation that does not reflect Government commitment to strengthening them.  At the same time, it is recognised that resilience is not civil contingencies. It requires a common framework and a code of conduct between civil service and civil society, and sufficient funding to make it sustainable.
  • Digital tools are often overlooked because they are not funded, so not adopted at critical scale. A mechanism for assessing such tools and getting them supported and funded could make a significant difference to societal resilience.  The starting point for this is the anticipated Government ‘hub’ website. Lessons can be learnt from other countries on best practice design – a site, for example, that requires a user to simply type their postcode in order to access all relevant information.  The point was also made that digital solutions and web-based information only work if the internet and an access device are available when needed.  Back-up solutions are also required, especially for communities that are not reliably digitally-enabled.
  • Much of the narrative about local resilience relies on volunteers and the resilience of individuals, however there is a decline in formal volunteering. This potentially puts more strain on existing voluntary organisations and there needs to be infrastructure to support and scale volunteer activity.  Apps like Good Sam are essential, but it takes more than the app to make the system work.  This suggests that a more sophisticated approach to relationship-building between the public, local organisation, public and statutory services is needed.

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