It’s not just the recent flooding that is using up council reserves – many town halls have already dipped into their ‘rainy-day funds’ to keep services going. So what does this mean in times of crisis?
As Britain recovers from some of the worst September flooding since records began, it seems October is set to bring more of the same. Weather patterns are changing and whilst investment in flood defence is important, much of the disruption is caused by rain water run-off that is less easy to protect against.
The immediate cost to local residents is well publicised but, as floodwaters subside, it would be easy to think that the damage has been done. However, the continued impact of such large-scale events on local authorities is a growing concern as the short-term requirement for councils to dip into already depleted financial reserves can have longer-term consequences far beyond the initial emergency withdrawal.
In the past, local authority reserves were put aside for when councils had to dig a little deeper. Yet, with stretched financial budgets, local authorities’ priorities have been challenged, and many have already dipped into these reserves just to continue providing services. Therefore, it comes as no surprise, when parts of the UK reportedly felt one month’s rain in a single day, that the Local Government Association is warning the ensuing urgent repairs for basic infrastructure could leave town hall budgets in disarray.
As such, while the immediate effect of major incidents such as flooding is certainly devastating, it is the silent cost that endures beyond the clean-up that is perhaps more potent. One of these less visible costs is the consequent failure of businesses and the knock-on effect to local employment. Furthermore, exhausted resources leave councils vulnerable to a risk of recovery failure and unanticipated future events which pose a threat to community cohesion and reputation if local authorities are unable to put things right.
In a time of restricted local budgets, a collaborative long-term approach among communities, government bodies and other organisations is essential to increase preparedness and help ensure a robust recovery. Our findings show the general public feel their community should be partly responsible for dealing with local crises but few, if any, feel confident in terms of how. Empowering and enabling individual citizens and businesses to respond to major incidents would be a logical step to improve community resilience.
Community engagement is an important tool for local authorities and should not be overlooked, especially as the public sector faces increased major incident risk in the coming years. The Jubilee and Olympics have highlighted a community spirit that has the potential to offer more than just celebrations. However, local authorities have a critical role to play in helping people know where and how they can contribute if they hope to draw on their support in times of crisis.
Indeed, as the forecast predicts more ‘rainy days’ to come, community cohesion may not only be the measure of a successful response, but also the means.
Andrew Jepp is director of public sector at Zurich Municipal