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The Pitt Review: The Government Responds

Commentary, 18 December 2008
Law and Ethics
This summer's Pitt Review, and the Government's response, should ensure that the Civil Contingencies Act Enhancement Programme is based on bitter experience and not just the best considered planning assumptions.

This summer's Pitt Review, and the Government's response, should ensure that the Civil Contingencies Act Enhancement Programme is based on bitter experience and not just the best considered planning assumptions.

By Jennifer Cole, Head of Emergency Management, RUSI

Nearly five months after the publication of The Pitt Review, the Government's official reply has finally been released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the department responsible for making sure its recommendations are implemented.

While there has been some criticism of the delay in releasing a response originally planned for 'the autumn', an instant response would have been no better. The Government has quite rightly taken its time to consider the suggestions made and assess the measures already in place. Such caution is required to ensure any plans made now are sufficiently robust and long-term to prevent the devastation seen over the summer of 2007 from reocurring, and to enable future flood resilience to be as effective as possible.

There is little controversy contained in the response. Of the ninety-two recommendations made by Sir Michael Pitt and his team, eighty-nine are supported without question. Indeed, many of these already have been, or are being, implemented. One - Recommendation 84, on the need for pre planned financial contributions to the costs of recovery - is supported in part, and the remaining two are accepted but deemed to be the responsibility of other agencies (the Met Office in the case of Recommendation 3 and the Risk and Advisory Council in the case of Recommendation 59). None have been significantly challenged or rejected.

A cynic could claim that a Government so willing to accept its shortcomings without question and agree in every case that more could be done should have been more aware of these limitations, without the need for an independent review to point them out. There is some merit in this viewpoint, but it is also worth remembering that, in many ways, the summer 2007 floods were the first serious test of the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) 2004. Its all-hazards approach means that it needs to be flexible to whatever mother nature – as well as Osama bin Laden – decides to throw at the UK in the twenty-first century. Should it ever have been expected to survive first contact with the enemy?

The floods came at an opportune moment. As we head into the Civil Contingencies Act Enhancement Programme (CCAEP), the first major review of the CCA, they enable the Act to be reviewed against very real benchmarks and reassessed against very real lessons identified. This has undoubtedly had a strong effect on the Government's response. Many of the recommendations needed to be assessed in the light of the impending CCA review, but also considered in such a way that they can be incorporated into the revised Emergency Response and Recovery Guidance due to be published in Spring 2009.

Foremost within this reassessment may well be the admission that the Pitt Review's most important recommendations were the ones calling for greater national guidance and co-ordination. The delegation of responsibility for civil contingencies to the lowest level may indeed have been somewhat rose tinted, and cries for more national guidance and more national frameworks appear to have been heeded:

'The Government agrees with Sir Michael Pitt’s assessment that the severe flooding in 2007 made it clear that strong, co-ordinated action is needed […] A fully effective response will only be possible if there is close co-operation and partnership between many bodies at all levels.'

In the future it should become easier for those affected by flooding to get in touch with organisations which have had similar experiences in the past, access guidelines for transition from response to recovery and refer to case studies describing previous recovery efforts.

Guidance on mutual aid and resource sharing between local authorities is promised before the end of the year. More responsibility will be given to upper-tier local authorities to enable the co-ordination of wide-area events, and a National Resilience Forum (separate from the National Security Forum announced in March 2008) will be established to facilitate national level multi-agency planning for flooding and other emergencies. This body will focus on providing advice and encouragement rather than on making decisions and will meet every six months, with the inaugural meeting set for the first half of 2009. The response accepts that more information sharing is needed across agencies and promises that the Government will strengthen the duty on Category 2 responders to ensure this happens.

There is a creeping admittance that the way in which the Government has so far tried to engage with the public is not always the way in which the public prefers to be engaged. However, the expectation still seems to be that the Environment Agency (EA) website will be their first port of call for flooding information and advice. Considering that there is so little evidence that the public is unaware of any message, the statement that the EA already encourages the public to make up flood packs and that 'this message will remain central to their ongoing campaign and communication with the public' comes across as somewhat smug.. There are, however, also firm plans to get these messages out through the BBC, starting with an awareness campaign early in 2009. We can only hope that this grudging acceptance that the public perhaps takes more notice of the media than official Government websites is equally recognised in the plans to support community resilience locally through 'clear advice and clear responsibilities'.

There is also a welcome acknowledgement that the findings of The Pitt Review, its recommendations and the way in which the Government takes them forward need to be applied to all civil contingencies and not just to flooding. A programme to reduce disruption of essential services by natural hazards is promised for the future, as are frameworks for resilience building and for promoting business continuity within the 'essential services' sector.

Perhaps most important of all, significant funding has been set aside to ensure that the recommendations can be taken forward: £60 million in the run up to summer 2010, including £15 million for local authorities. The exact amounts are set out in detail in the response and include £2 million to the UK Search and Rescue group, to include investment in rescue boats; a £5 million grant scheme to encourage householders to install flood resistance and resilience measures; and £0.4 million to establish a new team within the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) to run a national campaign to improve Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) resilience. The Environment Agency has already built forty-nine new flood defences in England since summer 2007, increasing flood protection to more than 37, 000 properties.

The response acknowledges that while investment can be made in new drainage systems, money may not be available to replace old ones and problems cannot therefore be solved overnight. In some cases, mitigation strategies are more realistic than wholesale rebuilding. More funding is also promised for flood modeling, planning and prevention.

When the new plans have been drawn up and the new recommendations put in place, they will be tested through a national flooding exercise, set for Spring 2011 and informed by national and regional tabletop exercises that will take place throughout 2010. Such exercises will never test the mettle of emergency plans and response frameworks as well as a real event, of course, but the weaknesses in previous plans that were highlighted by the floods of 2007 have enabled the processes to be questioned at precisely the time when those plans and frameworks are being reassessed in any case. It may be little comfort to families preparing to face their second Christmas in temporary accommodation, but this summer's Pitt Review, and the Government's measured response, should ensure that the CCAEP is based on bitter experience and not just the best considered planning assumptions.

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Jennifer Cole
Associate Fellow

Dr Jennifer Cole is an Associate Fellow at RUSI. She was previously Senior Research Fellow, Resilience and Emergency Management from... read more

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