Showcasing the value of democratic engagement in civil resilience: A collection of case studies

Orange text with the words Showcasing the value of democratic engagement in civil resilience
This publication highlights a collection of case studies produced to illustrate the significant benefits that can be achieved through the engagement of elected representatives in civil resilience activities.


Despite the range of variables across the case studies, a number of common themes have emerged as key ingredients of success:

  • in all the case study areas, there has been clear recognition that elected representatives have a legitimate role in civil resilience
  • secondly, there has been an appreciation of the tangible benefits that their involvement can deliver
  • finally, the synergy that is achieved when elected members and officers combine their different but complementary roles in a professional partnership focused on making the communities they serve safer has real benefits.


Councils – including those that operate in a combined authority setting - have a central role in dealing with major emergencies and other significant crises.  When such events happen, people expect councils to respond swiftly and effectively alongside other organisations, whilst continuing to deliver essential ‘business-as-usual’ services.

The types of emergencies councils and their local partners have to respond to vary significantly. For some emergencies, such as a major accident, the blue light services are likely to be the lead responders, while for others (such as COVID), councils and the health service will be at the forefront of the response. But in any emergency, councils will take the lead role in the recovery process.  As well as being important to those affected by an emergency, recovery can be a long, complex, and highly sensitive process, but it can also be a process that provides opportunities to improve local places and strengthen communities. 

Whilst all operational decision-making responsibilities associated with civil resilience rest with officers, as elected representatives, councillors also have key roles to play in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies – whether they are senior members with an executive decision-making role, or backbench ward councillors.  Although different, the respective roles of councillors and officers should complement one another and combine to produce a powerful political and professional alliance focused on protecting communities.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and its associated guidance is currently silent on the role of local politicians – focusing exclusively on the contribution of officers.  The LGA raised concern about this in a review of the Act in 2021, and was pleased that the Government recognised the democratic deficit. The new

UK Government Resilience Framework sets out an ambition for professionals responsible for multi-agency resilience activity becoming ‘…accountable to executive local democratic leaders, [giving]… these democratic leaders a clear role in ensuring effective delivery of resilience activity, including integrating resilience into wider local delivery.’ The LGA has summarised the key implications of the UKGRF for councils.

As noted in the LGA’s briefing, the Government intends to pilot various of the UKGRF proposals between 2023-2025, although this is unlikely to translate into legislative change and amendments to supporting guidance for some time.  The aim of this work is therefore to highlight and promote good practice that is already unlocking the potential of effective democratic engagement in civil resilience. In doing so, we hope to stimulate proactive improvement across the sector in the short-term, meaning that councils and the communities they serve are better prepared and more resilient, and that areas are well placed to deliver the ambition of the UKGRF for democratic leadership of resilience work.

Case study one: London Boroughs of Brent and Hounslow

Showcasing the benefits of taking a well-structured approach to engaging elected members in civil resilience.

In 2017, councils across London were involved in responding to an unprecedented series of major emergencies, ranging from fatal terrorist attacks to the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, which resulted in the deaths of 72 people.

The experience of dealing with these incidents raised serious questions about the individual and collective ability of London councils to manage events of such significance.  In response, the leaders and directly elected mayors from all 33 local authorities collectively commissioned an independent peer challenge of ‘London local government’s collective resilience arrangements’.

One of the findings from the review was that greater clarity needed to be achieved on the role of councillors in civil resilience, with the peer challenge team recommending action to:

‘Develop and agree the role of leaders, directly elected mayors and local councillors in preparedness, response, and recovery… and for elected members to be actively engaged in training and exercising.’

Implementation of these recommendations resulted in:

  • Production of a civil resilience handbook for councillors in London local authorities. The Handbook provides detailed guidance on the role of leaders/directly elected mayors and other cabinet members, as well as the role of local ward councillors.  It also includes guidance for officers on supporting councillors to fulfil their agreed roles effectively.
  • Production of standardised training and development programmes for cabinet members and ward members. Based on the content of the Civil Resilience Handbook, the programmes build the knowledge and understanding of councillors about their roles and provide an opportunity to explore how best to exercise them.
  • Introduction of a ‘political leadership’ resilience standard.  As one of a suite of resilience standards for London local government, the political leadership Standard provides a benchmark against which local authorities can self-assess the quality of political engagement in civil resilience. It is also used to independently assess the performance of councils through a programme of peer review.

With the above resources having been made available, it was then for individual local authorities to adopt and embed them in order to systematically establish clear and consistent civil resilience roles for all councillors.  Two London Boroughs that embraced the opportunity to do so were Brent and Hounslow.

Both councils ensured leadership of the process from the very top with the leaders and chief executives promoting the programme and encouraging all councillors to take part in it, with necessary support being provided by officers.

Having undertaken the training and development programme, cabinet members and local ward councillors now have a much better knowledge and understanding their respective roles. They have also had an opportunity to explore how to exercise them in ways that complement the operational activities that their officer colleagues will be involved in. 

The systematic approach that has been taken is clearly paying dividends. The leader of Hounslow Council, Councillor Shantanu Rajawat talks about the focus on civil resilience that has been generated.  He has personally taken on the emergency planning portfolio to ensure political leadership at the highest level.  As he says:

"For me, as leader of the council, making sure we’re prepared to deal effectively with emergencies has become a top priority. An important part of that is about councillors understanding their role and the value they can add to the operational work being done by officers.  The approach we’ve taken in Hounslow has really helped with that."

Listening to the experience of the elected member for Kingsbury ward in Brent, it is also clear that Councillor Shama Tatler sees great benefit from a local member’s perspective and talks about how the programme has helped build a stronger professional partnership between councillors and officers: "As well as members now knowing more about the role of officers, officers have a much better understanding of what we can offer as elected representatives who are part of the community."

Key learning from case study:

  • Leaders and chief executives should promote the role of councillors in civil resilience.
  • Councils should be clear on the civil resilience roles to be undertaken by senior and ward councillors.
  • All councillors should receive training and development alongside officers, so that they know, understand, and have the skills and support necessary to exercise their agreed roles effectively.

Case study two: Buckinghamshire Council

With only three weeks to go until the vesting day which would see a new Buckinghamshire Council come into force, the UK government initiated its response to the COVID-19 pandemic – describing it as a ‘once in a generation’ emergency.

By that time, officers and members had spent the best part of a year working flat out together to deliver the new council.  However, the arrival of COVID-19 heralded a complete change to the context within which that transition would happen.  As a result, it was necessary to immediately recalibrate the focus of the organisation – both politically and operationally – so that the twin challenges of bringing the new unitary council into operation and responding to the emergency could be addressed in parallel.

Despite the unenviable circumstances this scenario created, in the months that followed, it became clear that the time and effort invested in preparing for the new council had created a firm platform for success.  One example of this, was the decision that the council’s new operating model would position local elected members at the centre of community development activity.

The primary mechanism for facilitating this would be the introduction of Community Boards.  Plans involved 16 boards being put in place across Buckinghamshire to bring the council, community groups, town and parish councils and other organisations, and local people together.

With each chaired by a local councillor, the role of the boards would be to:

  • represent the voice of local people
  • capture thoughts, ideas and suggestions
  • bring together key community partners and residents; and
  • identify local needs and work to produce and implement creative solutions.

As well as having the community leadership capacity provided by councillors alongside professional support from their officer colleagues, each board would have an allocated budget to fund local projects and initiatives.

However, at the point COVID struck and the new council came into operation, ‘…the community boards were not fully formed’, according to Council Leader, Martin Tett.  "Nevertheless, the concept was well developed and understood. We also knew the pandemic response would have an important local dimension." That being the case, a decision was taken to press ahead with establishing community boards as a focal point for the local response to COVID. Councillor Tett also observes that doing so,

…enabled us to maintain forward momentum by introducing agreed new ways of working to facilitate our response, rather than being held back by relying on historic structural arrangements for community-based working."

In the months that followed, this decision to enable and support the local leadership of ward councillors via the new Community Board arrangements clearly paid off.  As the ‘trusted local face of the council’, it established ward councillors as a conduit for the two-way flow of reliable information between the council and communities. Not only did this help important messages such as those about engagement in surge testing and vaccination uptake achieve their desired effect, it also provided invaluable information to support the response.  As Chief Executive, Rachael Shimmin explains:

…local councillors are uniquely placed to provide soft intelligence about circumstances in their wards and having access to that intelligence really helped shape our response to the pandemic."

Furthermore, as community leaders, local members up and down the county were actively involved in supporting the response of their communities to the emergency.  Using their local knowledge and contacts, as well as the financial resources at their disposal, local members were able to help pull together many different initiatives focused on providing support to those in their wards. These included:

  • Councillor Ashley Waite worked with local groups in the Aylesbury area to get food to people in need.
  • Councillor Mark Winn helped put together a community group in Bedgrove, Aylesbury to assist those who were self-isolating to do so safely and with the support of a befriending service.
  • Councillor Paul Kelly partnered with Woodstock’s Coffee House to help deliver home-cooked lunchtime meals to vulnerable isolated and elderly residents in Burnham, as a well as to local NHS workers.
  • Councillor Arif Hussain raised funds from friends and family through the Five Pillars Charity to bulk purchase food essential for elderly residents in High Wycombe.
  • Councillors Charlie Clare and Patrick Fealey worked with Gawcott Fields Community Solar Farm to ensure that the Farm’s £8k donation to support the education of children at home went to local schools to bolster their remote teaching capabilities.
  • Councillors Raj Khan and Niknam Hussain organized a ‘remote’ curry night to pay tribute to the work by emergency services.  Working with a local caterer, the councillors with other volunteers hand-delivered 130 hot curries to staff at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and to Aylesbury police and fire stations.

Reflecting on his experience as Leader of Buckinghamshire Council throughout the pandemic response, Councillor Tett speaks with great pride about the collective effort involved.

We all pulled together as a single team, united against a common enemy in COVID.  Ward councillors were an incredibly important part of that team. They saw a role for themselves as community leaders and, with the support provided by the council, made a huge contribution."

Key learning from case study:

  • Senior political and professional leaders recognizing the valuable role of ward councillors in civil resilience.
  • Putting structures in place through which councillors are supported to facilitate and lead community development – including that focused on building local resilience.

Case study three: Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council

Showcasing the political leadership role of senior councillors in securing investment for infrastructure improvements following major emergencies.

The steep, narrow valleys characterising the Calder Valley mean that flooding has always been a risk to local communities in the area, with records of its impact dating back to the early seventeenth century. 

However, when a series of severe floods in 2012 led to record high water levels, resulting in an unprecedented number of homes and businesses being inundated, Calderdale council responded by initiating a new, strategic approach to flood risk management.

A Flood Recovery and Resilience Programme Board was established, which was chaired by the leader of the council, and attended by the deputy leader, cabinet members, and the council chief executive. This ensured political and professional leadership at the highest level, reflecting the significance being attached to flooding and its impact on the Borough.

The early work of the board focused on developing a detailed understanding of the nature of flood risk and its impact in Calderdale, so that solutions could be designed to fit the specific geography of the area, as well as community demographics and the local economy.

When Storm Eva struck on Boxing Day in 2015, the vulnerabilities identified through the work of the Board became all too apparent. Twenty miles of the Calder Valley were flooded, with over 2,500 homes and 1,200 businesses directly affected, and many more properties left without electricity in the middle of winter.

The devastating impact of Storm Eva galvanised the council and its partners. They felt they had no alternative but to grasp the opportunity of the crisis and deliver a comprehensive long-term strategy which would manage the impact of climate change – particularly with projections pointing towards such extreme weather events occurring more frequently and with increasing severity.

A cross-party Flood Commission was swiftly convened comprising seven councillors, with the chief executive of the National Flood Forum operating as its independent chair. The Commission considered the causes, impact, and response to the flooding across Calderdale, hearing evidence from local businesses, communities and partners, including the police, Northern Powergrid, the Environment Agency, the Canal and River Trust, and Yorkshire Water.

Commission members also drew upon the lived experience of local ward councillors who had played such a central role in the response as community leaders and advocates, as well being members of the impacted communities themselves.

Having completed its work at-pace, the commission’s conclusions and recommendations were adopted in full by the council’s existing Flood Recovery and Resilience Board. Under the auspices of the Board, the recommendations were then translated into a Calderdale Flood Action Plan comprising four areas of focus:

  1. community resilience
  2. strengthening defences
  3. natural flood management
  4. resilient infrastructure.

In developing the plan and considering the resourcing requirements for its implementation, it became clear that much could be achieved through effective partnership working at a local level, alongside activity to unlock the potential for resourceful communities across Calderdale to work with their local councillors in becoming more independently resilient.

However, it was also obvious that huge capital investment would be required to repair the extensive damage caused by the floods and deliver the major infrastructure improvements necessary to better protect flood-affected areas in the future. 

Whilst the then Environment Secretary pledged a ‘comprehensive flood plan for the Calder Valley’, and the Chancellor subsequently announced that £115m would be made available to improve flood defences in the Calder Valley, York and Leeds, it was evident that this figure would not be sufficient.

Furthermore, in the words of the Council Leader, Councillor Tim Swift: ‘"..the inflexible rules being used by government to inform decisions on the allocation of funding for flood defences simply didn’t take the realities for areas like Calderdale into account. In particular, they focused on the number of homes and businesses that would be protected by defences. Although these numbers are important, they overlook the impact of flooding in small, rural areas where numbers of homes and businesses might be relatively low but flooding events decimate whole communities. Not just some homes and businesses, but all homes and businesses, along with schools and transport infrastructure. The social, economic, educational, and psychological effects are massive and weren’t being properly taken into consideration.

"Nor was the frequency of severe flooding in the Calder Valley.  Again, the number of properties affected by single flooding events might have been relatively low, but the cumulative impact of repeated floods should have been strengthening the case for investment in flood defences, and it wasn’t."

On the above basis, senior councillors from Calderdale Council embarked on a campaign to secure necessary investment in flood defences by making an evidence-based case to government and other funders on behalf of their residents and businesses.

With the support of their officer and ward councillor colleagues, the local MP and other stakeholders, a concerted and unrelenting political leadership effort led to ‘the voice of Calderdale’ being heard and meaningful change being achieved as a result:

  • The Government changed its policy position, acknowledging that ‘…flood and coastal erosion investment decisions need to take the impact of small, more frequent flood events into consideration.’
  • A total of £149.3m of funding has been secured for investment in local flood defences.
  • A major flood alleviation scheme at Mytholmroyd has been completed, along with a number of smaller projects.
  • A second major scheme is underway in Brighouse, with further projects expected to start this year or next at Hebden Bridge, Erringden Hillside and Stubbing Holme Road.

Reflecting on what’s been achieved so far, the Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Jane Scullion acknowledges that "…we still have a lot of work to do to ensure communities in Calderdale are properly protected from the risk of flooding.  That said, we have made good progress over the last few years, and I think the work that’s been done has helped to reduce levels of anxiety about flooding in the area."

"In doing what we have, a crucial part of our role as elected representatives has been to communicate the powerful effect that frequent flooding has on rural communities. In places like Calderdale, flooding doesn’t just have an effect on the landscape, but on people’s ability to travel, on the local economy, on schools, on churches, on the whole community.  Therefore, every pound invested in flood defences pays huge dividends and I think we have made our case well and Calderdale is more resilient as a result."

Key learning from case study:

  • The ability of senior councillors to influence government and other decision-makers from the perspective of the local communities they represent.
  • The importance of seizing opportunities for improvements that are created by the high-profile nature of major emergencies.

Case study four: Cumberland Council

Showcasing the benefits associated with effective political oversight of preparedness activity.

The Sellafield site (formerly known as Windscale) in north-west England first opened in 1947 to produce radioactive plutonium for use in Britain’s nuclear deterrent.  In the seven-and-a-half decades since, although the focus of operations has changed and evolved, the site has consistently been home to some of the most significant nuclear risks in the world.

In October 1957, a fire broke out in Windscale Reactor one. The incident remains the worst nuclear accident in the UKs history, and one of the worst in the world. The Windscale fire was a wake-up call for the whole nuclear industry. It led to the closure of both reactors at the site and vast operational and technical improvements in nuclear reactor design and technology. The fire also transformed the approach to safety in the industry with a complete overhaul of arrangements for licensing and regulation.

Against the above background, it is no surprise that those in communities around Sellafield, and the elected councillors who represent them, have maintained a keen and enduring interest in site safety issues. Over time, this has translated into some of the most comprehensive, mature, and effective arrangements for securing political and public oversight of emergency preparedness activity anywhere in the country.

Since 2005, lead responsibility for public external oversight of activity on the Sellafield site has rested with the West Cumbria Sites Stakeholder Group (WCSSG). The WCSSG is an independent body whose role is to provide public scrutiny of the nuclear industry in West Cumbria. Prior to local government reorganisation in Cumbria, it was chaired by Councillor David Moore, the portfolio holder for nuclear and corporate Services at Copeland Borough Council, and included representatives from local government, nuclear industry regulators, emergency services, unions, community groups, and the site operator.

The group meets quarterly in public and is supported by six working groups that are funded by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and undertake detailed scrutiny of specific issues associated with running the site, including environmental health, socio-economic impacts, emergency planning and operations.

In order to ensure the group is able to carry out its scrutiny function from a necessarily well-informed position, it is supported by a network of expert advisors from:

  • The Office of Nuclear Regulation
  • The Environment Agency
  • The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
  • Sellafield Ltd and Nuclear Waste Services (the site operators)
  • National Nuclear laboratories
  • Civil Nuclear Constabulary
  • Cumberland Council
  • Joint Emergency Management and Resilience (JEMR) Team 
  • chairs of the Working Groups.

With the benefit of 18-years’ experience as chair of the WCSSG, Councillor Moore is in no doubt about the important role played by the Group: "…the real value we add is in providing constructive challenge, as well as offering effective solutions from a position of really understanding local communities.

"Most of us have worked together for a long time and there are high levels of trust and mutual respect in the group.  But it’s also important for there to be critical friendship. In the end, our job is about securing assurance on behalf of local communities.  We have to probe and test what we’re told and when we find issues, highlight them."

He goes on to explain that this is particularly the case for elected representatives, pointing out that " only have to look at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry to see that senior councillors can be held to account for the quality of oversight and scrutiny they provide in key policy areas, such as preparedness for emergencies.

But our role is not just about finding fault, we also work together as a group to create solutions. For example, when we scrutinised the proposed plan for evacuating local schools after a radio-active release, we were concerned that it relied on buses going and collecting the children. Firstly, we weren’t sure that bus drivers would be available quickly enough, and secondly, we knew that nearby parents would want to collect children themselves and would get to schools before the buses.

Having challenged the plan, the group came up with a completely different approach that involved encouraging parents to collect and evacuate children. Cumbria police provided a dispensation to allow children to travel in cars without the need for child seats which would not normally be permitted, and the Sellafield site operators met additional insurance costs. We moved from a theoretical plan that we didn’t believe would work, to a community-based plan that we’re really confident in."

As the WCSSG continues its work, Councilllor Moore warns against complacency: "…even though we’re a well-established and experienced group, you must never stop evolving. We are constantly looking for good practice elsewhere, as well as seeking opportunities to share our experience with others. One of the key ingredients of good scrutiny is finding best practice and thinking about how to apply it in your own unique setting."

Key learning from case study:

  • Bodies responsible for independent scrutiny should have access to expert advice from various sources, so they are able to operate from a well-informed position

Case study five: Lincolnshire County Council: parish-level community resilience

Showcasing the benefits of the approach taken by councils to building community resilience across parishes in Lincolnshire.

The Lincolnshire Community Resilience Programme began in 2009 and was inspired by the idea of harnessing local, community-based capacity to enhance the response of statutory agencies to emergencies across the county.

In a predominantly rural setting such as Lincolnshire, it was a concept borne of practical reality. Organisations represented on the Local Resilience Forum (LRF) acknowledged the ‘real world’ challenges of managing risk across a dispersed population and saw real potential for resilient communities to preserve life and protect property and the environment.

With the concept of building community resilience established as a strategic priority for the LRF, attention turned to thinking about the mechanism by which aspiration could be translated into meaningful change on-the-ground, and at scale across the county to achieve real impact.

In considering this challenge, it was recognised that there needed to be a focal point for community resilience building activity – a hub that would facilitate the coming together of local volunteers and the support needed to transform their goodwill into real capability.  And not someone or something new and imposed but an asset that was already established in communities.

The potential solution that emerged was the network of town and parish councils across Lincolnshire - 364 organisations that were well established and exist to make a positive difference at the heart of local communities. It was felt that these councils already had many of the ingredients required to help build resilience, particularly in terms of assessing local needs and designing solutions to address them which often involve organising and deploying community volunteers.

However, unlike county, district and borough councils, town and parish councils are not directly represented on local resilience forums. Therefore a ‘bridge’ was required between the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum and network of community-based councils, and it was decided that this would be ‘routed’ through the other tiers of local government. Officers representing the county, district and borough councils on the LRF then took the idea away with a commitment to turn theory into reality.

They recognised that the process of doing so would necessitate professional capacity and expertise, but it would also require political leadership.  In particular, political leadership at the interface between district councils, and the town and parish councils in their area.  District and borough councillors have an important and mutually beneficial relationship with their counterparts on parish councils and often sit on those councils themselves. District councillors are both a conduit for the two-way flow of information and the ‘trusted local face’ of the council they represent.

With that status in mind, the community resilience programme was designed such that district and borough councillors would be supported to lead on the process of engaging with town and parish councils in their wards. This involved:

  • A service level agreement being put in place, under which emergency planning specialists from the county council provided civil resilience training to elected members in the district and borough councils.  The training programme included a strand specifically focused on the community resilience programme and the role of councillors in delivering it, as well details of the support that would be provided to them in doing so.
  • Councillors were provided with a pack of information to help them proactively engage with town and parish councils and sell the idea of initiating local resilience building exercises.
  • Councillors were then able to link ‘adopter’ parishes with officers who could provide advice and support to volunteers, as they used their knowledge of the local area to identify relevant risks and design resilient community plans for managing them. The plans approached risk management from the perspectives of; the community role in preventing emergencies, the community role in responding to emergencies and the community role in recovering from emergencies.
  • Relevant training was then provided to community responder volunteers, as well as the equipment necessary to support their role (known as ‘battle boxes’).
  • And finally, teams of community responders were provided with opportunities to take part in ‘table-top’ exercises facilitated by emergency planning officers to test the efficacy of their Plans in a ‘safe’ simulated environment and learn lessons from the process of doing so.

In the fourteen years since its inception, the Lincolnshire community resilience programme has grown exponentially.  The aspect based around parish and town councils now provides enormous collective capacity at a local level across the county.  A network of 214 (of 364) local councils have implemented the programme and mobilised an army of volunteers in the process. The communities involved are more resilient and confident in their ability to manage risk locally.  They are also able to combine their efforts when dealing with emergencies that cross parish boundaries or have the potential to overwhelm individual responder teams.  County and District Councillor Wendy Bowkett remembers well how:

"…teams from eighteen parishes worked brilliantly together when Wainfleet was hit by serious flooding in 2019. Whilst there have been many ingredients to the success of Lincolnshire’s community resilience programme, the county council’s community resilience lead, Steve Eason-Harris is in no doubt that…district councillors have played a fundamentally important part in what’s been achieved."

This view is echoed by West Lindsey District Councillor and Nettleham Parish Council Chair, Angela White who describes district councillors as being:

"…uniquely placed to use their trusted relationships with parish councils to encourage collaboration, and they also know which levers to pull to make progress."

It should also be noted that councillors and officers highlighted Steve’s central role in driving the programme on behalf of the LRF as having been instrumental. In the words of one: "Without the passion, professional leadership, and expertise he has provided in supporting his councillor colleagues, the programme simply wouldn’t have realised its potential in the way it has."

Key learning from case study:

  • For local resilience forums to recognise the important role that town and parish councils can play as focal points around which to build community resilience.
  • The need for officers to support and drive such programmes on behalf of local resilience forums.
  • The role that district councillors can play in using their relationships with town and parish councils to establish links with local resilience forums.

Case study six: Lincolnshire Local Resilience Forum - councillor involvement in FloodEx

Showcasing the benefits of involving senior councillors in emergency planning exercises.

In 1953, a number of extreme weather events – high natural tides, a major coastal surge on the North Sea, and very high winds – combined to generate a tidal surge that caused the worst flooding in living memory on the east coast of England. 307 people tragically died across the counties affected and nearly 25,000 homes were destroyed or damaged over an 8-hour period.

Although communities are far better prepared now than back in 1953 with huge advances in forecasting, warning and defences, the risk of extreme flooding along the east coast remains very real.  A tidal surge in 2013 that caused significant flooding was a stark reminder of this and such events are only set to increase with a changing climate and rising sea levels. 

In Lincolnshire, the land behind coastal defences is below average sea level, extending up to 10km inland in places, meaning the coastal floodplain is huge.  It forms the largest single landmass at risk of flooding in the country and, if the area were to be inundated from tidal breaches, water depths of up to two metres could occur. Most properties in this area lie below average sea level and the land would not drain naturally after flooding. Access to repair breaches would be difficult, meaning flooding could potentially occur over repeated tides, across several days.

Against the above backdrop, East Coast Flooding has consistently featured as a top risk on Lincolnshire’s community risk register.  Therefore local councils and other organisations represented on the county’s Local Resilience Forum have invested significant time and resources in preparing to deal with tidal inundation.

An important aspect of ensuring necessary preparedness involves periodically testing plans by running training exercises.  Such exercises provide an opportunity for representatives from organisations involved in response and/or recovery operations to deal with a challenging emergency scenario in a safe, simulated but realistic environment. Doing so, helps demonstrate where plans are robust, as well as highlighting potential areas for improvement.

In November 2022, alongside 18 other local resilience forums, the Lincolnshire LRF took part in a major exercise focused on east coast tidal inundation, FloodEx 2022.

The exercise was based on a reasonable worst-case scenario involving 182,000 properties being affected, with evacuation and shelter required for 186,000 people, 46,000 of whom would require assistance to evacuate. The figures of 370 fatalities and 10,000 casualties were assumed, 108km of road and 90km of railway flooded, with other major infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, care homes, emergency services and agricultural land all affected.

Typically, opportunities to actively participate in such exercises are only made available to officers and other professionals involved in response and recovery.  Elected members are often invited to observe but it is very rare for them to take an active part by rehearsing their political leadership responsibilities as an integral part of the exercise programme. In this regard, Lincolnshire Resilience Forum decided that FloodEx 2022 would be an exception to that ‘general rule’.

It was obvious when designing the exercise that the recovery phase from such a major flooding event would be a very significant undertaking in terms of its scale, duration, and complexity. It was equally clear that senior councillors would have a crucial part to play in making strategic decisions that would shape the recovery effort. In addition, they would need to deploy their political leadership influence to secure funding required for investment in infrastructure, and to address the social, economic, and environmental consequences of the emergency.  That being the case, the recovery phase of FloodEx incorporated a discrete elected member cell, which ran in parallel with five other operationally orientated cells.

The elected member cell was attended by senior councillors from Lincolnshire County Council and East Lindsey District Council.  During the recovery phase of the exercise, Cell members were asked to consider a range of strategic and political issues that were regarded as being material to their role in the exercise scenario:

  • the approach to key decisions on where and whether to restore flood-damaged areas
  • the strategy for lobbying central government for funding
  • which services should be reinstated in which areas, and in which order
  • long-term housing requirements
  • meeting legal requirements to educate children
  • criteria for designating homes as uninhabitable
  • consideration of advice/support to:
    • people whose second homes have been impacted
    • iIllegal residents
    • people rendered homeless by flood
    • previously homeless people
    • businesses directly affected by flood
    • businesses indirectly affected due to workforce having to evacuate etc
  • issues associated with longer-term regeneration of affected areas
  • financial implications for councils:
    • loss of council tax
    • loss of tourism revenue
    • escalated supported living costs
    • business continuity of services provided by impacted councils.

The exercise proved to be a hugely valuable learning experience for the elected members involved, and for the officers who worked alongside them in the other Recovery Cells.

In the words of Councillor Wendy Bowkett: "I found the exercise very useful, taking part in the recovery stage, working with partners to look at different scenarios and some really challenging issues."

"I think the main thing we took away from the exercise is that recovery can mean different things, it may not mean putting back everything that was there before. The ‘new normal’ could result in improvements but, equally, in areas at risk of tidal flooding where coastal erosion is taking place, really difficult decisions may need to be taken to allow areas go back to nature, which is incredibly hard for people affected."

For Ian Reed, Lincolnshire County Council’s head of emergency planning and business continuity, there was also real value in members being involved.  Although their direct input added an additional dimension to the exercise and made the process of simulating recovery more complex, it served to underline the crucial interdependencies between the operational role of officers and the political role of their councillor colleagues.  Ian concludes that "...based on our experience and the learning that came from senior councillors being involved in FloodEx 2022, we will actively seek opportunities for elected representatives to be participants in future major emergency exercises."

Key learning from case study:

  • Not only should councillors be trained on what their roles are in relation to civil resilience, they should be given opportunities to play an active part in exercises, so they can practice them and learn in a safe, simulated environment.

Case study seven: Test Valley Borough Council

Showcasing the benefits of positioning ward councillors as ‘community assets’ when building resilience.

In 2011, Test Valley Council engaged the LGA to help develop a model that would empower councillors to become catalysts for change in their communities. It was recognised that, whilst having the democratic legitimacy to play a conveying role, elected representatives often didn’t have the tools they needed to actually make things happen in their local area. Working with the LGA and local stakeholders, the council developed a ‘community councillor’ model to provide members with the resources and support required to achieve real impact and build community capacity.

The approach taken was based on the concept of ‘asset-based’ community development, ie identifying and harnessing existing ‘assets’ in communities (people, skills, knowledge, buildings, organisations etc) and using them as a focal point for building capacity to achieve positive change. 

In the ‘Planning for Real’ collaboration between the LGA and Test Valley Council, councillors themselves were positioned as ‘community assets’, tasked with fostering a more vibrant and participatory partnership between communities and local public services.

The community councillor model in Test Valley capitalised on members’ status as the ‘trusted face of the council’ by providing them with budgets to invest in local initiatives and recruiting community engagement officers to provide direct professional support in their wards. 

Local ward profiles were produced to highlight the different needs and make-up of communities. These were then translated into ambitious place-shaping plans for the communities involved, which were then delivered collaboratively.

The outcomes from pilot were impressive but subsequent scaling-up of the idea across all councillors proved to be transformative.  In the words of the Leader, Councillor Phil North:

“As a result of the work we did with the Local Government Association, the whole culture changed and all councillors in Test Valley became community leaders. In turn, this unlocked resources for local councillors including a councillors’ grant scheme, community asset fund, and introduction of the community engagement officer team in Test Valley meaning that all members had dedicated officer resource”.

In 2014 when water levels rose and flooded dozens of businesses and homes in Test Valley, the investment that had previously been made in developing the community councillor model paid huge dividends. The culture of working together in deploying community assets that people had become used to pivoted towards the emergency – volunteer organisations and community members began organising to help one another with the support of local councillors and public services, first to respond and then to recover from the flooding.

The reaction of the flood-hit communities in 2014 inspired a decision that community resilience should feature as a consistent strand in the work of Community Councillors across the whole borough.

To energise the work, Councillor Phil Lashbrook was appointed member champion for community resilience and established a Test Valley Resilience Forum. The forum provided an opportunity for community volunteers to meet and build their expertise by sharing learning and receiving presentations from expert external speakers. Explaining his role, Councillor Lashbrook reflects that "one of the things we noticed early on is that we didn’t need to lead people, we needed to encourage and by giving them that encouragement and support they didn’t feel isolated or at all threatened to take these things on; they felt energised by the fact that they knew the borough council, their elected representatives, and other stakeholders were there behind them to support them all the way."

Over time, the capacity being created by the expanding network of resilient communities across Test Valley progressively grew.  In 2020 that capacity was severely tested by the COVID pandemic. However, the resilience network at community level remained strong. This meant that the local authorities and other statutory agencies within Test Valley had less direct involvement in the delivery of things like food parcels and medicines than was the case in other areas. 

Commenting on the community response to COVID, Councillor Lashbrook observes that: 

"It’s vital for agencies such as councils to invest in community capacity if they want local resilience to succeed. It’s something that takes time and a long-term strategy. Communities are suspicious of organisations that want to impose quick fixes or inflexible frameworks on them. However, if local authorities build trust and nurture capacity, community resilience can have a hugely positive impact."

Such was the impact of the community response to the pandemic in Test Valley, it served as a catalyst for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Local Resilience Forum to review its approach to a long-standing community resilience programme that had achieved variable success. The review was led by Test Valley Council on behalf of the LRF, with support from the Southern Policy Centre, and reported in November 2022.

Implementation of the proposed actions that emerged from the review will see the LRF encouraging adoption across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight of the good practice developed in Test Valley over the last decade. 

Commenting on this and the role of community councillors in what Test Valley had achieved, LRF Chair, Chief Fire Officer Neil Odin has concluded that:

"Local ward councillors are an absolutely essential element of any plan, or any approach to dealing with community emergencies; they operate as leaders and representatives of place, and emergencies always happen in places."

Key learning from case study:

  • Ward councillors can be regarded as community ‘assets’ around which local resilience can be built.
  • Officer support arrangements should be configured to provide direct professional assistance to local councillors in their wards.
  • Senior officers from councils who attend local resilience forums should promote the role of ward councillors in building community resilience.

Case study eight: West Yorkshire Local Resilience Forum

Showcasing the role of elected members in delivering the West Yorkshire Local Resilience Forum COVID-19 strategy.

On 20 March 2020, West Yorkshire Prepared (the local resilience forum) declared a major incident in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Having done so, it convened a strategic coordinating group (SCG), bringing together senior officers from the emergency services, NHS, Environment Agency, and local authorities – a group collectively known as category one responders under the Civil Contingencies Act.

In line with agreed national protocols, the role of the SCG was to take overall collective responsibility for the multi-agency management of the emergency at strategic level and establish a framework within which lower levels of command and coordinating groups would work.

An early priority for the SCG in establishing this framework was to put in place a COVID strategy for West Yorkshire, setting out an overall aim for the multi-agency response effort and agreeing a series of more detailed supporting objectives to guide the work of responder agencies.

The strategic aim agreed was ‘…to preserve life and relieve suffering, support those most vulnerable, and the health and social care system, whilst returning to a new normal economic and social wellbeing.’ Objectives focused on achieving that aim were then set, with a commitment to deliver them in line with the key principles of coordination, collaboration, and communication.

In considering the principle of collaboration, whilst agencies represented on the SCG had significant collective resources and expertise at their disposal, it was clear that the COVID response would require a ‘whole system’ approach.  This meant extending collaboration to organisations beyond the boundaries of the SCG.  In particular, SCG members saw the West Yorkshire Health and Care Partnership and West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) as key collaborative partners.

They also recognised that collaboration across partner agencies would need to involve political leadership and support, alongside the professional contribution being made by officers. In the words of Director for Public Health and SCG member, Debs Harkins:

"We had to work collaboratively as a system, and very much saw elected members as an integral part of our system in West Yorkshire."

In the months that followed, elected members – both senior councillors at individual local authority and WYCA-level, and local ward councillors – were instrumental in enabling and supporting the successful delivery of various aspects of the resilience forum’s COVID strategy.  Whilst the roles they fulfilled were necessarily different from those of their officer colleagues, they certainly proved to be highly complementary.

Senior councillors on the combined authority received regular briefings on progress in delivering the COVID strategy.  This enabled them to maintain a clear collective view on progress and emerging issues.  It also meant that they were able to agree positions on the issues in question and address them as a single ‘collective voice’ for West Yorkshire in a coordinated way.  As the Leader of Bradford Council, Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe explains:

"The council leaders on the combined authority had worked together for a long time and knew each other well.  This really helped with the consensual decision-making approach we needed to take."

Director of strategy, communications and policing at WYCA, Alan Reiss highlights the particular advantages of this approach when it was necessary to have "Coordinated conversations with government about important issues."  For example, through discussions at ministerial level, CA members were able to influence national policy on distributing grants to businesses being impacted by the pandemic.  Initially, the grants were focused exclusively on businesses required to close. This overlooked the indirect effect on other businesses that were permitted to continue trading in theory, but, in practice, were unable to do so because they relied on the companies that were temporarily shut.  As a result of representations made by the CA, funding arrangements were changed to take a broader view on how to minimise the economic impact in businesses in West Yorkshire.

The collective voice of CA members was equally important when it came to communicating on other issues such as the reality behind headline figures on infection rates and managing the practicalities of putting different restrictions in place in different parts of West Yorkshire, based on the Tiering arrangements being imposed by government.  As Debs Harkins explains: "…the nature of the economy in West Yorkshire meant many people had to keep working throughout the pandemic. This obviously resulted in high levels of infection, and communities bore a hugely disproportionate impact as a result. It was important that the reasons behind the headline the statistics were properly explained, and the support we received from local politicians on that was phenomenal."

In addition to the work being done by senior councillors, ward councillors played an instrumental role in helping deliver aspects of the LRF’s strategy at a local community level.  As Councillor Salma Arif, Executive Member for Public Health and Active Lifestyles at Leeds City Council, and ward member for Gipton and Harehills puts it: "Ward councillors were at the heart of the community response. As the local representatives of councils, they were able to use their trusted position to communicate important messages in a calm and reassuring way. They could also use the knowledge of their ward and the people there… the local intelligence they have, to make sure services were actually going to work for local people."

Councillor Arif reflects on two particular scenarios where her role as a ward councillor came to the fore. The first was in relation to a programme of surge testing required to monitor infection rates.  "As the local ward councillor, I was able to speak to people, to address their concerns and deal with some of the unfair stigmatisation that people felt in areas being targeted for surge testing.  This was really important in getting people to take part and I think having those conversations made a real difference."

The other example illustrates the importance of understanding the lived experience of local people and matching it with opportunities for them to be vaccinated. "During the pandemic, a mass vaccination centre was set up at Elland Road football ground.  It was an excellent facility but difficult and expensive for some of the people I represented to get to.  So, as an alternative, I worked with partners and community leaders to establish a pop-up vaccination facility at the Bilal Centre in my ward.  It proved to be really popular and significantly increased vaccine uptake in the area."

Co-Chair of the West Yorkshire LRF, Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton is also in no doubt about the important role played by ward councillors during delivery of the COVID strategy, concluding that one should:

"Never underestimate the value that local councillors can add by being able to translate high-level strategic objectives into really positive change on the ground."

Key learning case study:

  • The positive contribution that senior elected representatives and ward councillors can make in helping to deliver high-level objectives set by Strategic Coordinating Groups during response.