Managing Flooding Crises: the Need for Common Sense

In this article Ed Thompson considers ‘local resilience’ as understood from an emergency management perspective, in relation to recent and past flooding.

Almost on a yearly basis there seems to be a flooding crisis in some part of the UK, most recently the focus has been on parts of Northern England. The legislation that sets out responsibilities for preparedness and response in such emergencies goes back much further than Tory cuts to a New Labour government – operating with a very different ideology to the current Labour leadership.

The link between resilience and neoliberalism has been considered at length by acadmeics (see recent special edition and workshop coverage in Politics, and the launch of Resilience). Discussion has centred on ties between Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ in ecology (the source of resilience concepts, Holling, 1973), free markets and more recently in civil contingencies policy where resilience is taken to mean the ability of a system to absorb and recover from shocks. The emphasis of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 is the delegation of public responsibilities to a local level (now without statutory regional collaboration after the demise of regions in 2010), and wherever possible to private businesses and individuals. This new era of delegated responsibility, including the general public and private sector being responsible for their own fate, is often presented under a banner of ‘responsibilization’ (Shamir, 2008) – in keeping with a neoliberal ideal of a small state which does not interfere with individual freedoms or responsibility.

There are at least two clear examples where resilience policy is contradictory. The first conflict can be seen in the implementation of ‘Emergency Preparedness’ Chapter 8 (the Cabinet Office, 2012) – the official guidance on implementing the Civil Contingencies Act. This places the duty to promote business continuity management (BCM) on local authorities, requiring the local public sector to undertake duties which encourage private (and voluntary) sector organizations to consider their own resilience.

“The Act requires local authorities to provide advice and assistance to those undertaking commercial activities and to voluntary organisations in their areas in relation to BCM in the event of emergencies (as defined in the Act). This activity is undertaken to ensure preparedness.”

These duties mean that while local businesses and voluntary sector organizations are responsible for themselves, local authorities are responsible for assisting and advising these organizations in preparing for extreme events. There is no clear measure for such activity, and little guidance as to how local authorities should go about this. CURA’s own Brahim Herbane (2011) finds great disparity in what advice is available in different parts of the country. It seems at odds with an ideal of personal and private responsibility to make the local state responsible for advising the private sector of their responsibilities.

Secondly, there are pragmatic considerations during extreme events. David Harvey (2005) presents the contradiction between the enduring hegemony of neoliberal policy while simultaneously having to preserve institutions such as the National Health Service (NHS) that hold affections from voters across the political spectrum.

As crisis events unfold we see the same pragmatism coming into effect with emergency management in the short term, bucking a trend of responsibilisation in keeping with neoliberalism which exists outside of the crisis. Under policy written while a crisis was not underway  there is no requirement for Local Authorities to issue sandbags in floods, indeed many local authorities hold very small stocks sufficient only to protect their own facilities. However, during crisis political rhetoric changes, a new situational logic of action dictates that those with the capability to obtain and distribute sandbags in effective quantities do so; and that we be empathetic to evacuated and flooded families. In 2014 political leadership very visibly changed tack on the issue of sandbags during floods:

I’ve told local councils they should not charge for sandbags in flood-hit areas – central government will pick up the cost. – David Cameron, Twitter – @David_cameron, 1:13pm, 14th Feb 2014.

During the same incident Brandon Lewis (then Under Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government) cited the Bellwin scheme as a means for LA’s to recover the cost of sandbags, and that costs should not be passed on to residents (Localgov.co.uk, 2014). The scheme allows local authorities (and some other public sector organizations) to recover 85% of an incidents cost once it exceeds 0.2% of their annual revenue budget (for Cumbria last year this was £1.27m.), though this has sometimes been flexed up to 100%.

What results from this is a policy of ‘responsibilisation’ of the private and voluntary sector organizations outside of emergencies and the abandonment of such policies during crisis events. During crises the responsibility is then passed on to Local Authorities (and other public sector organizations) to respond to the needs of those that are poorly protected – at a cost to the taxpayer. Local public sector actors are the squeezed middle, responsibility for handling crises is dumped upon them, without commensurate resources.

As Buchanan and Denyer explain, extreme events offer a period of transience in which fracture logics become apparent. The change from circumstances of stability to those of extreme events are an example of the dependence of neoliberal logics on a stable context, and crisis events (sudden contextual changes) bring the limitations of this policy logic into sharp relief. Common sense dictates the need to tax and spend for a cost effective and capable flood defence system.

Ed Thompson is a core member of CURA  and Vice Chancellor’s 2020 Lecturer at the Department for Strategic Management and Marketing at DMU

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