Sunday, 29 December 2013

David Cameron is a disingenuous git!

How much cash do you have in your wallet or purse right now? Go on, have a look, I will wait. OK, how many days food will that buy you and your family?

I was once a member of a group of people attending a training session about civil resilience and this was the first thing the trainer said. Most people had £50 or less, I may have had £20 at the time. The theme of this part of the session was all about how quickly so called "civilised" life can break down.

The reason the question was about cash was on the basis that if the electronic finance system went down and the only money you had access to was whatever you were carrying, how many days would it be before things went wrong in a major way. Actually, because so many supermarkets have such a high turnover of goods, there isn't a great amount of food stocked up and so those with plenty of cash won't be able to buy food, it will be gone so quickly. Imagine, no ATMs, no credit/ debit transactions, no stock control and so on. If you think this is cloud cuckoo - how many times has RBS been hit by electronic banking problems recently? I will return to this thought experiment at the end of this post.

So, we have had floods over the last few days in the UK which has seen people losing everything within their homes to the waters, power out for thousands of people for a few days and roads and railways affected by the weather. But, in a few days time, this will be old news and apart from the poor souls having to deal with their flooded homes, it will be business as usual for the rest of us.

In the midst of this, we have the the Prime Minister, David Cameron (as if you didn't know) visiting those hit by the storms. On his visit to Yalding in Kent, Cameron was berated by a woman upset about how long it was taking to get power back on and that the "council had gone on their holidays". He was of course very sympathetic and in order to make sure that the ruined furniture and carpets could be dumped, he said would get onto the council himself to make sure some skips were brought in. In the interview at the end of the piece, he said:

"and then we need to learn the lessons; we are seeing these events take place more often. Now the government is spending more on flood defences over the next four years than over the last four years. There is a lot of flood defences being built, something like 80,000 houses were protected this time, but we've got to do more and so we need to work with the Environment Agency and see what more we can do to learn any lessons from this flood and other floods."

It has also been reported that Cameron has urged councils to draw up "robust plans in case of bad weather and flooding over New Year". So that's it, job done and off the the next photo call.

We had big floods during the summer of 2007 (the only people to remember will be those affected) and as a result, the Labour government of the time appointed Sir Michael Pitt to investigate the issues and indeed produce a report on the lessons which should be learnt. Why Cameron thinks we need to learn them again is beyond me as the Pitt Review was rather comprehensive! At the very least, read the executive summary and you will note that Pitt made 92 recommendations!

The government responded to the review at the end of 2008 and broadly accepted the findings. One important decision was to make many local authorities responsible for the coordination of flood prevention and preparation which fitted in with general local authority responsibilities for civil emergency planning. Flood risk from the sea and main rivers (which are designated) stayed with the Environment Agency, but the rest became the responsibility of the Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFA). These LLFAs are essentially unitary authorities or counties and it was all rolled up in the Flood & Water Management Act 2010. Much of the approach is risk management, investigation of incidents and ensuring the right people work together (such as sewer authorities). So, the "robust plans" are already there, Dave.

The F&WMA2010 came into force in April 2010 and then a month later we ended up with a Con-Dem coalition government which instigated a huge programme of public spending cuts which hit local authorities and the Environment Agency hard and more recently, has filtered down to the emergency services. In essence, the bodies which work to prevent flooding, but deal with it when it happens. Of course, the cuts continue (I know there are often "savings" to be had in organisations, but I think we are now talking about cuts).

Those that follow this blog will know that I am a highway engineer by practice, but I also lead a double life (OK, triple life including the blog). I don't post about my day job, but I will briefly mention my second job as a Local Authority Liaison Officer (LALO). The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 makes local authorities, the emergency services, health services, the Environment Agency, utilities and transport authorities responsible for planning for emergencies and indeed preventing and mitigating them occurring. In the context of a local authority (and in common with the emergency services), they will have a command structure in place which is enacted during times of civil emergency, like major flooding.

The command structure has Gold (strategic), Silver (tactical) and Bronze (operational) staff reacting to and managing the incident. LALOs being designated as Silver, are essentially "the face of the council" and empowered to make quite large decisions in deploying council resources to shelter displaced people, close roads, assess building damage and so on. For my employer, we have have a weekly rota where a LALO is on standby weekday evenings and weekends, along with other council services which we are able to call on out of hours (emergencies during hours being relatively easy to deal with!). I am paid a little extra to be on call  and I need to be close-ish to the office (and sober of course). The way things are organised across the country vary, but the Gold-Silver-Bronze set up is consistent (but that is enough on emergency planning for an engineer's blog!).

We LALOs are trained and we regularly participate in multi-agency exercises with a variety of scenarios such as terrorism, major fires, floods and so on. Our counterparts in the emergency services, transport authorities, utilities, NHS and the voluntary sector (who are often contracted to assist) exercise and train together and all have physical (equipment/ supplies) and staffing resources which can be called on 24-7, 365 days a year. Unsurprisingly, people, kit and contracts cost money, even if they are not being used in response to an incident - insurance if you will. I have been on call all week (including Christmas Day) and although I am fortunate not to have been called out, the fact that I was on stand by comes with a cost.

With the floods over recent days, the woman from Yalding was quite wrong when she said that the council was on its holidays. While many people will have been on holiday (it was Christmas for goodness sake), there were people in the background providing the humanitarian response once the emergency services had done their jobs. The utility companies (those transporting power, gas etc) also had people working hard to get services restored - often not a simple job.

The reason I suggest that Cameron is disingenuous is that he will know full well how things are set up across the UK (he often chairs COBRA for goodness sake), he will know how things have been and will continue to be cut and he will know that we don't need to learn any more lessons, Pitt did that for us.

Back to your wallet or purse. This could extend to most vestiges of modern life such as power, water, gas, phones, sanitation, transport etc. A flood will not only damage homes, but it can take out all of the utility services. A loss of power can lead to no ATMs, roads do become impassable, railways close. People need to remember that civilisation is backed up by many things and the loss of them means we descend into chaos. Cameron had best remember this.

Update 30/12/13
Now Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has thrown in his views as reported by the BBC;

Mr Paterson said it was important that power companies and local councils had "adequate staff" to cope with any emergencies that might crop up.
He added: "We've made it very clear they have clear responsibilities to their customers and to their electors and we expect them to perform."
Well, he can get stuffed too. This is all about shifting the blame from where it should lie and that is at the Government's feet. 

In terms of the power outage, we are looking at a peak of 150,000 homes out of some 26.4 million households in the UK (or 0.6%) and so was power the real story here? No, it was the flooding, but power can be blamed on private companies and what is not being reported is of course this is the transmission companies (who own the kit), rather than the person you pay your bill to.


  1. Appropriately enough, the Dutch have gotten this worked out, too. After the 1995 Rhine floods a program of infrastructural measures (what else?) was instituted to mitigate the effects of high water in the Rhine and Meuse delta. €2.5 billion was spent on things like sacrificial farmland that can be flooded to reduce the pressure in other areas and moving dikes back to create larger uninhabited flood plains.

  2. Those Dutch *shakes fist*. The sad thing is that we were getting our act together and indeed "managed retreat" in giving up land for tidal and fluvial flooding has been going on in the UK. My point was that behind the photo op, the PM must know the score and as a LALO, it got to me!

  3. Thing is that in the event of a major crisis like the power cuts, even though the LAs and utilities are running a skeleton service with on-call for out of hours, they can and will drag people in to assist, and 99% of those asked will roll up sleeves and chip in. (I provide on-call for acute hospital IT and we have pulled together in exactly that manner for single system outages, let along a major disaster)

    The storm obviously caused a lot of damage to the local power grids as well as all the flooding, and with the best will in the world it takes time to clear the debris to get to the outages and then to repair them.

    Cameron like most politicians is a greasy slimy git (actually more than most) who will avoid doing anything but will make all the right noises.

    If only he'd had the balls to say that the authorities were breaking their backs (sure they will have been) and repair does take time, then I would have had some small respect for him.

    1. Quite right. Despite many people being fed up with how they are treated, paid, regarded etc, when the chips are down and things go wrong, they are up there wanting to help. Politicians keep seeing a way of promoting themselves.

  4. Lest we forget, this story is being reported by the same journalists who seemed surprised (and critical) that the Philippines government hadn't managed to reach every corner of their affected regions by the second day, after they were hit by the typhoon earlier this year. (As per every other natural disaster they report on anywhere in the World).

    This is the C21st goddamit! Surely all it takes is someone in a control room somewhere to wave their hands over a screen in a Minority Report/James Bond stylee in order to identify each problem and then simply task the individual who has spent the last 360 days on stand-by in their van, waiting for just for such an occasion, to go to the scene and repair it?

    If not, just what do we pay our taxes for?! ;-)


  5. Of course, what happens here is always tiny compared to the suffering in other parts of the world and I think it gets forgotten. But, any standby arrangement comes with a cost and it is mostly there for sheltering people and cleaning up after the event.

    Minority Report? I have a book of phone numbers!