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First rule of emergency planning: try not to create one

Last week a top civil servant stood in front of an audience of experts at a prestigious London conference and talked about resilience. It was instructive.

In almost the same breath he talked about ‘community resilience’ and the government’s National Risk Assessment. He mentioned a number of possible calamities – a flu pandemic, riots on the streets – and said the government wanted to work through voluntary organisations and community networks to respond to emergencies.

He was particularly bothered that these organisations didn’t seem greatly interested in the government’s resilience agenda: 62% of organisations involved in emergency planning felt this was a ‘major barrier’. The challenge, he said, was getting the public to ‘receive key messages’.

There might be a reason for that. Resilience is too often framed in terms of the concerns of the government rather than people. The government’s civil contingencies secretariat sits in a corner of the Cabinet Office. It may be a very special corner, but it’s a corner nonetheless, and a corner of Whitehall, one of the most insular and disconnected communities in the UK.

Meanwhile in different corners, the major departments of state are doing a great deal to undermine resilience. Take the Department for Work and Pensions, which through the bedroom tax is offering thousands of social housing tenants the choice between losing money or having to move, disrupting networks of family, friends and neighbours and, for many, children’s education or job opportunities. And by capping benefits and cutting their value in real terms at a time of rising prices the department is making it progressively more difficult for the people who have least to make ends meet.

We could consider too the way the Home Office forces asylum seekers to live on £35 a week of food vouchers, or the way the Department for Communities and Local Government’s funding for councils strips away support from the very community and voluntary organisations the government would like to ‘receive its key messages’ about emergency planning.

If the Cabinet Office is concerned about how well Britain can respond to crises, you might imagine it would try to ensure the government doesn’t create the conditions for a crisis. People will go to amazing lengths to help each other in an emergency, but the less they have themselves, the less able they are to help. Just to put that in context, the housing charity Shelter this week said that 35 per cent of people would run out of money to pay the rent or mortgage within four weeks of losing their job.

If you trawl through the 2012 National Risk Register, though, you’ll see that poverty and inequality don’t figure as potential problems. Perhaps that’s because they’re chronic rather than calamitous issues, but they certainly have the potential to create disasters. Earlier this year the World Economic Forum produced its own global risks report. Number two on its list of economic risks, after financial meltdown, is widening inequality. Even the most hardheaded business leaders know there’s only so much inequality a place can stand before it implodes.

If the government wants to build resilience, the key messages need to go in the opposite direction. What can local communities teach government about the priorities for resilience?

Those priorities might have much more to do with the things people are immediately concerned about: secure, affordable homes, access to reasonably paid jobs, consistently good schools, reliable local services, affordable finance when you need it. If your foundations are secure, it’s much easier to recover from shocks and setbacks. If you look at the work of the British Red Cross in disaster-hit countries like Haiti, you’ll see it’s about building foundations for the future as well as responding to immediate needs.

Above all, resilience depends on trusting human relationships. So people-centred policies that support and encourage community networks, nurture local leaders and stimulate reciprocity will help; those that stretch and tear the fabric of community life will make any emergency worse.

Perhaps it’s time to stop talking about resilience in terms of bouncing back and instead see it as putting nutrients in the soil. You have to feed the roots before you get the shoots.

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