Scrutiny and council readiness for emergencies – guest blog
Councillor Ketan Sheth, from Brent Council, shares his experience of how scrutiny can support council emergency preparedness.
Over the spring and summer of 2017, terrorist incidents in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, and then the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington, rightly put emergency response at the forefront of minds across the UK; communities, politicians and public servants alike.
While the terrorist incidents in London were managed by individual Local Authorities and emergency services with minimal need for support from their neighbours, the scale of the Grenfell Tower disaster required a pan-London response, and we should be proud that many of Brent’s councillors had a visible presence, and that over 100 Brent Council staff answered the call for mutual aid. They undertook roles such as working at the Borough Emergency Control Centre and providing support directly to affected families. Brent’s own Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, temporarily joined the “Head Office” of the Grenfell Fire Response Unit to head up the humanitarian assistance response.
In light of both the number and scale of incidents in 2017, Brent Council’s Audit Committee agreed there would be timely to review Brent’s own emergency preparedness. Given the cross-cutting nature of incident response, the task group was drawn from the Council’s three scrutiny committees and the Audit Committee; I was chosen to chair it.
During this work we looked at best practice and bench-marking from other London boroughs, heard from experts in the field, reviewed documents and plans, took part in a scenario exercise, and visited the facilities that would be used as our own Borough Emergency Command Centre in the face of a major incident.
The resulting report, which we discussed at Full Council in January 2018, outlined a number of Brent’s strengths, and made nine recommendations, many of which were already underway or completed by the time the report was published.
- Emergency duty rotas have been reviewed and numerous more senior council officers have been trained to coordinate major incident responses;
- New training has been commissioned from the Cabinet Office for both senior council staff and local ward councillors to ensure they are ready to respond if needed;
- A review of emergency accommodation and rest centre locations has been carried out;
- Meetings and exercises have helped maintain our already very strong relationships with the police, ambulance, fire, and local partners such as Wembley Stadium and Neasden Temple.
Thankfully, incidents the scale of Grenfell are rare. Outside of Brent’s support for the Grenfell response; the Civil Contingencies team dealt with 21 incidents in 2017; mostly domestic house fires, floods, or explosions, and a few localised issues such as power cuts, storms and burst water mains. The exception was the discovery of an unexploded bomb which required the (thankfully temporary) evacuation of a large number of households in the Brondebury Park area, which was testing for both officers and local ward councillors. While we all hope that the people of Brent are spared any major incident, we feel reassured that strong foundations are in place should the Council be called upon to respond.
For more information about Brent Council’s Emergency Preparedness Task Group Report, please visit www.brent.gov.uk/scrutiny
Cllr Ketan Sheth is Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee.