Flooding response: Are ministers out of their depth?

Summary

And is the closure of the network of regional government offices coming back to haunt them?

Because the network of regional government offices in England (closed in 2011) used to be a key component of central government’s response to big emergencies. I should know – I used to work for one and was ‘called up’ when Buncefield blew up.

When I heard Eric Pickles’ comment on the Sunday Politics “We thought we were dealing with experts” (see here) I felt that was a comment unbecoming of a minister of the Crown. Prospect the Union – the one that represents technical and specialist staff, has demanded an apology. (See here). Pickles’ comments the following day in Parliament (see here) are all the more astonishing – so much so that even the spoof news websites have started writing articles about it. (See here). Even Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph took Pickles to task – see here. Interestingly, The Green Party (with whose leader Natalie Bennett I was with at an event in Cambridge very recently) has called for Owen Paterson MP, the Environment Secretary, to resign.

“It is understood that Cameron has not been impressed by the performance of some of his ministers.”

…so says The Guardian – understood by whom exactly? Personally I have found the conduct of both the Communities Secretary and the Environment Secretary in response to the floods to be wanting. I also think the Prime Minister waited far too long to take control – recognising that it was something that cut across more than one government department.

I’ve no idea what the post-Government-Office-Network setup for dealing with civil contingencies are. But having served as part of a response team when the Network was in place, one of the things that strikes me is that for all its faults (of which there were many), the presence of the Network would have sped up the Government’s response as well as improving the quality of it.

Eyes and ears on the ground

The old offices were based in 9 English regions (see here) and covered a number of different Whitehall departments & policy areas. I’m not going to go into the detail of what they did and their shortcomings, but rather look at what their role would have been in a civil contingency such as flooding. We know that flooding is a risk – it’s on the National Risk Register 2008. (See page 5 of here).

During my early days of my civil service career, being young, single, in reasonable good health and with no dependents meant that I was ideal call-up material. With a desire to learn lots given not the most exciting office work in the world – I was a junior admin type learning my trade – I jumped at every other training course going. This also meant that, having done the training, you were expected to make yourself available if something bad happened. What I hadn’t realised was just how much resource (in terms of personnel) responding to a large civil contingency would take. By scrapping the regional government offices, the impact has been to reduce the number of trained civil servants with local knowledge to help deal with civil contingencies. Prior to 2011, there was a sizeable government office in Bristol that would have provided some of the personnel for the ‘Gold’ Command that brings together all of the emergency and local authority services responding to the emergency.

“What is a Gold Command?”

This course outline from the new College of Policing gives an outline. I served in a Gold Command at Buncefield. I’m not going to go into details of what I did there for obvious reasons. I’m only going to refer to what’s already publicly available by the competent authorities. The difference a regional office makes in these situations is that the civil servants there not only already know the people within the emergency & local authority services they are working with, they also know the terrain & the issues. They also know their counterparts in Whitehall too. Given the number of people required to respond to a large civil contingencies incident – remember the operation has to be 24/7 & seven days a week, that’s quite a significant call on your resources – whether junior staff or senior management.

The floods – didn’t we see this coming?

This is what surprises me – to all extents and purposes, we saw this coming. It’s not as if there were a couple of days of stupendously heavy rainfall and that was that. It took time for the ground to become saturated before the rivers flooded. The weather forecasters had been warning about this for quite some time – complex though forecasting is. I’m referring to short term forecasting in this case rather than longer term climate change. Surely there was enough time for better arrangements to be put in place?

One of the impacts of the cuts – to departments, to agencies, to local government and to the emergency services is that it has reduced the analytical capacity to process the huge amount of information that is out there. One of the lessons from the Tsunami of South East Asia back in the mid 2000s was that you needed a decent bureaucracy to ensure aid distribution is co-ordinated. The same is the case here. Given that we also have the rapid growth of ‘big data’ – especially for mapping, and ever-improving analytical techniques, it is now possible to visualise which parts of the country are likely to be safe, which are not, which are the transport routes at risk and which are the best ones for getting emergency services in and civilians out. But if you’ve cut your analytical capacity as well as the organisation that would be a nice natural ‘hub’ for analysts from the various organisations to come together…exactly.

So…now what?

Chances are there will be some sort of inquiry into the Government’s response to the floods – certainly from the Environment Select Committee. I also expect some sort of investigation into the financial cost of the floods – not least on insurance and the conduct of insurance companies in compensating flood victims. Will we see a rethink on planning policy – such as not building on flood plains? Or on fracking?

In the meantime, the focus remains (quite rightly) on both the recovery and response to any follow-up bad weather. Because unfortunately it looks like more rain and high winds are on the way.

Tewkesbury Abbey during the 2007 floods, via the British Geological Survey

 

 

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3 Responses to Flooding response: Are ministers out of their depth?

  1. Pingback: Flooding response: Are ministers out of their depth? – A dragon’s best friend | Public Sector Blogs

  2. ianchisnall says:

    A great blog, as someone who was one of the Stakeholders on the South East Regional Assembly, there was also a significant network of Council Leaders which also included experts in Business and the Environment along with Social Agencies (I represented the Faith groups) who were sighted on these issues. Sadly in anticipation of 2010, the Assemblies were wound up in 2009 and as you express so well, the Regional resilience and planning capacity began to be stripped out.

  3. Pingback: Who stripped the Roof? | ianchisnall

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