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Dealing with civil contingencies: Emergency planning in the UK

Published Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire has raised questions about how agencies plan for and respond to civil contingencies. This briefing looks at emergency planning in the UK.

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The recent fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London has raised questions about how the emergency services, local authorities and other agencies plan for and respond to civil contingencies. This briefing therefore looks at emergency planning in the UK: the responsibilities of each of the responding agencies and how those fit within the framework for planning for and responding to civil contingencies laid down by Government.

The statutory framework: the Civil Contingencies Act 2004

The statutory framework for planning for and dealing with civil contingencies derives from the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (the 2004 Act). 

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Contingency Planning) Regulations 2005 (as amended) add further detail to the emergency planning regime.

Definition of an emergency

Section 1 (1) of the 2004 Act defines an emergency as

  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom
  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom or
  • war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.

An event or situation threatens damage to human welfare only if it involves, causes or may cause loss of human life, human illness or injury, homelessness, damage to property, disruption of a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel, disruption of a system of communication, disruption of facilities for transport, or disruption of services relating to health (Section 1 (2))

What goes into an emergency plan?

In its guidance on the responsibilities of the various agencies, the Cabinet Office says that emergency plans should cover three areas:

  • preventing an emergency
  • reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency and
  • taking other action in connection with an emergency

Who does what? Category 1 and Category 2 responders

The 2004 Act divides local bodies in the UK into two categories - Category 1 and Category 2 responders – with differing responsibilities.

  • Category 1 responders must assess the risk of an emergency occurring and maintain plans for dealing with that emergency. They include local authorities, emergency services, health bodies, the Secretary of State in relation to maritime and coastal emergencies, and the environmental protection agency for each jurisdiction.The 2004 Act also empowers Ministers to require Category 1 responders to take certain actions.
  • Category 2 responders must cooperate with category 1 responders. They include (amongst others) utility companies and transport providers.

The National Resilience Capabilities Programme

The Cabinet Office’s 2013 guidance on preparing and planning for emergencies, outlines the National Resilience Capabilities Programme, which aims to increase the UK’s capability to respond to and recover from civil emergencies, however caused.

Local Resilience Areas and Local Resilience Forums

The 2004 Act requires Category 1 responders to organise within Local Resilience Areas, most of which follow police force boundaries.

In London, arrangements have been slightly different. There had been six Local Resilience Areas, but in 2011 a single pan-London Local Resilience Area was created, based on the Metropolitan Police and City of London Police areas.  With the closure of the Government Office for London, a formal role was also given to the Greater London Authority.

Local Resilience Forums are multi-agency partnerships. The Cabinet Office’s reference document on the role of Local Resilience Forums sets out how the process should work.

The impact on communities: role of the local authority

The Government’s non-statutory guidance on emergency response and recovery sobserves that local authorities are likely to be called upon to support the emergency services in various ways during the response to an emergency and in the recovery phase.

In 2014, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) published a good practice guide for local authorities on preparing for civil emergencies. This sets out what local authorities must do, to formulate plans that provide for emergency response and business continuity. 

Community resilience

Another plank of the emergency planning approach is building and supporting community resilience.

The Cabinet Office’s guidance on preparing for emergencies offers advice and links to resources on how communities can prepare.  Another aspect of emergency planning on which the Cabinet Office has published guidance is building resilient communities. The guidance lists what the Local Resilience Forum can do to provide oversight and support and champion community resilience. 

The Grenfell Tower fire: criticism of Kensington and Chelsea’s response

After the fire at Grenfell Tower, it was reported that the local authority’s poor initial response had led to Kensington and Chelsea being relieved of their responsibility for caring for survivors and that responsibility being handed to a multi-agency team. 

In a statement on 22 June 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May, said that “the support on the ground in the initial hours was not good enough”. The Prime Minister referred, too, to the forthcoming public inquiry.

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council has announced his resignation.

Further reading

The Commons Library briefing Grenfell Tower fire: Response and tackling fire risk in high rise blocks looks in more detail at the fire and the response to it.  Its landing page also provides links to other related and supporting documents.

Other Commons Library briefings on related topics are available from the pages for emergency services and emergencies and disaster management

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8016

Author: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood

Topics: Emergencies and disaster management, Emergency services, Human rights, Intelligence services, Terrorism

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